Why you should care
Because who doesn’t want a long, healthy life?
As far as Samuel Sánchez is concerned, science fiction is temporary fiction. In his not-too-distant future, an army of cell-size, self-propelled nanorobots will do enormous good. They’ll be injected into our bodies, where they’ll hunt down tumors and deliver targeted medicines. They’ll save our rivers and oceans by cleaning up contamination. The bots will be our friends.
If Sanchez is stressed by the task ahead, you can’t tell. The 36-year-old Catalonian chemistry Ph.D. is a global leader in nanorobotics, and yet he couldn’t appear more relaxed. Brown-haired, good-looking and offering an easy smile, he sports a T-shirt and speaks while moving his hands, not unlike a children’s storyteller. But he also admits that he can be intense — he’s been known to argue with his young son over video games — and it’s that intensity that has won Sánchez multiple accolades, including a Guinness World Record for the smallest man-made jet engine. He’s also “lab-in-a-tube” and nanorobotics group leader at Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, and technology and engineering group leader at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, in Barcelona, where he’s one of two leading world academics focused on developing nanorobotic applications. Specifically, Sánchez’s research focuses on using biodegradable materials to carry medicine or sensors into the body, where they then disintegrate.
Precision targeting is done by designing them to release their payload when they hit higher acidic levels in cells, like cancerous ones.
The nanomedicine sector is expected to double to around $200 billion in 2020, according to Grand View Research and Transparency Market Research, covering everything from nanopharma to cardiovascular monitoring systems, with drug delivery, Sánchez’s specialty, the biggest market. “This is moving fast all over the world,” says Sánchez’s friend Joseph Wang, another leading expert and the head of nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego.
Sánchez is already using biodegradable materials that disintegrate in the bloodstream after about a year — too long for humans — and he’s experimenting with alternatives to get them absorbed faster. These bots mimic the way viruses and bacteria work in nature, except they’re being designed to carry medicine or sensors. They can also move around in different ways — self-propelled, by attaching themselves to bacteria or, more promising, by interacting chemically with their surroundings. “Nature is showing us the way,” Sánchez says, noting how his team uses urea and glucose, providing bubbles that propel the bots with a rolling motion akin to what happens to a poster when it’s removed from a wall.
Precision targeting is done by designing them to release their payload when they hit higher acidic levels in cells, like cancerous ones. The bots can also be directed by outside stimuli, like ultraviolet light or magnetic fields, but the ultimate “dream is for [them] to go where they have to go — not by coincidence, but to find their own way,” he explains.
Sánchez’s love for potions began at age 12 during a school field trip to a chemistry lab. “I knew it then. I wanted to play at mixing things to change properties,” he explains, adding that basketball is a close second passion. He earned his chemistry degree in Barcelona in 2003, despite being hard hit by his parents’ divorce, and finished his doctorate five years later. Throughout graduate school, he taught chemistry while coaching basketball to make a living. He also spent some time in Amsterdam, and his research has since taken him to Japan and Dresden, where he brought his wife and first son along with him. His daughter was born in Dresden, and he now splits his time between Stuttgart and Barcelona.
No matter where he is, he divvies his time between work, family and basketball, including coaching a women’s team in Germany’s second division league. “You have to take risks to pursue your dreams,” he says, admitting that he’s constantly on the run. “He’s always been methodical in everything he does. A time for play, a time for basket and a time for work,” says his lifelong friend Jordi Lopez.
Wang says Sánchez is very good at solving problems and a stiff competitor. “It’s a good race to realize the Fantastic Voyage as we get closer and closer,” he says, referring to the 1966 movie, one of many to imagine traveling the human body at a molecular level. But unlike Sánchez’s on-court obsession, this is a long game with plenty of obstacles. For one, alternatives to the bots are also being developed that may prove cheaper and just as effective. Going from research to mass production takes time, as does the regulatory process, so it’s likely to be at least 15 years before bots are commonly used. Research must first be done on the implications of releasing them en masse into the body or nature, and the first step is to make a bloodlike liquid and test them in tubes, then rats and mice.
Sánchez’s mentor, Ayusman Sen, a chemistry professor at Penn State and nanomotor expert, says questions have to be resolved before they’ll have a clearer outlook. Bots must be biodegradable and use fuel found inside the body while also being biocompatible and able to swim against the flow. These are serious problems, he explains, but ones that are solvable — in time. Luckily, Sánchez is in it for the duration. He laughs at the notion of a schedule, noting how everything’s changing so fast. “But they’ll be ready before I retire,” he promises.