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"Mini Submarines For Exploring The Human Body as Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact"

Sci-Fi fans have long been watching the ideas of their favorite authors become reality. The idea that a man could go to the moon was once a fantasy, and that is now a long established fact of science. This researchers may make another classic come to life. Those of you that remember the 1966 Hollywood movie, Fantastic Voyage  and its medical vehicle shrunk small enough to “submarine” in and fix faulty cells in the body will be interested to hear about the new research by Tel Aviv University scientists. It may make that fantasy to reality transition only three years away.

The blueprints for the submarine and a map of its proposed maiden voyage were published earlier this year in Science by Dr. Dan Peer, who now leads the Tel Aviv University team at the Department of Cell Research and Immunology. The team will build and test-run the actual “machine” in human bodies. Dr. Peer originally developed the scenario at Harvard University.

Made from biological materials, the real-life medical submarine’s Fantastic Voyage won’t have enough room for Raquel Welch, but the nano-sized structure will be big enough to deliver the payload: effective drugs to kill cancer cells and eradicate faulty proteins. Yes, you read that right, biological materials. So that unlike the metal sub in the movie this one can pass into your body without giving your metal poisoning or injuring your body. 

A Nano-GPS System

 Dr. Dan Peer, Tel Aviv University
Dr. Dan Peer

“Our lab is creating biological nano-machines,” says Dr. Peer. “These machines can target specific cells. In fact, we can target any protein that might be causing disease or disorder in the human body. This new invention treats the source, not the symptoms.”

Dr. Peer’s reported on the device’s ability to target leukocytes (immune cells) in the guts of mice with ulcerative colitis. Calling his new invention a submarine, Dr. Peer has developed a nano-sized carrier which operates like a GPS system to locate and target cells. In the case of Crohn’s disease, for example, it will target overactive immune system cells in the gut. In other diseases such as cancer, the submarine can aim for and deliver material to specific cancer cells, leaving the surrounding healthy cells intact.

While other researchers are working in the area of nano-medicine and drug delivery, Dr. Peer’s submarines are among the first to combine a drug candidate with a drug delivery system. An important step no doubt because if you have a drug with poor delivery or a strong delivery system with weak drug the patient will not get the best and most effective treatment. As the submarines float through the body, they latch onto the target cell and deliver their payload, a drug based on RNAi. This new kind of drug can affect faulty RNA machinery and reprogram cells to operate in normal ways. In essence, RNAi can essentially restore health to diseased cells or cause cells to die (like in the case of cancer cells).

Learning from the Body’s Own System

Large pharmaceutical companies have already expressed interest in this research, for obvious reasons tied to the large potential profits, and in the area of RNAi in general. Currently, the Tel Aviv University lab is pairing its medical submarine with different RNAi compounds to target different pathologies, such as cancer, inflammation, and neurodegenerative diseases.

“We have tapped into the same ancient system the human body uses to protect itself from viruses,” says Dr. Peer, who is also investigating a number of topical applications for his medical subs. “And the beauty of it is the basic material of our nano-carriers is natural,” he says.

The Tel Aviv University team plans to launch their medical submarines, following FDA regulations, within three to five years. Their immediate focus is on blood, pancreatic, breast and brain cancers.