"A friend of mine, Albert R. Hibbs, suggests a very interesting possibility for relatively small machines. He says that, although it is a very wild idea, it would be interesting in surgery if you could swallow the surgeon. You put the mechanical surgeon inside the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and "looks" around. It finds out which valve is the faulty one and takes a little knife and slices it out," said physicist Richard Feynman in a 1959 lecture he gave at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Perhaps we have to thank Feynman, as well as Hibbs for the breakthroughs of nanotechnology to date and the idea of direct manipulation of matter at the atomic scale.

As it turns out Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa have answered a six decade question posed by Feynman.

They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this week for a tiny lift, artificial muscles and miniscule motors, 1,000 times smaller than a strand of hair. The scientists have managed to develop molecules with controllable movements and are able to perform tasks when energy is supplied.

However, it is a question that took 32 years to answer. 

The three decade-long formation of molecular machines

In 1983, Jean-Pierre Sauvage succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain known as catenane, which unlike normal molecules, were linked with a mechanical bond. It enabled the molecules to perform tasks as the molecules are able to move relative to each other.

In 1991, Frase Stoddart developed a rotaxane, of which a thin molecule axle was threaded through a molecular ring that was able to move along the axle. His other developments based on rotaxanes include a molecule lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Eight years later in 1999, Bernard Feringa made a breakthrough by developing a molecular motor. He got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction and using these motors, he managed to rotate a glass cylinder that was 10,000 times larger than the motor. He also designed the first nanocar.

Last Wednesday, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded in recognition of their success in linking molecules together to design molecular machines such as motors, a car and muscles.

"They have mastered motion control at the molecular scale," said Olof Ramström from the Nobel Prize committee.

So what does it mean for the healthcare industry?

In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor back in the 1830s, when scientists exhibited a few gears and wheels, unaware of the potential that would lead to fans, centrifuges, food processors, electric trains and more.

If we could peer a century into the future, these molecular machines have endless potential. In the near future, they could be administered intravenously to deliver drugs from within, especially for targeted cells such as cancer cells.

Last year, researchers in Germany managed to use molecular machines to build an anti-cancer compound that is light-sensitive. This allows doctors to target affected areas without damaging healthy tissue. One main problem of many existing researches is that the machines are not autonomous.

What the trio have done is the development of molecular machines that can reversibly contract like muscles, in response to the different exposures to different metal ions or variation in acidity. This means that the machines could possibly be autonomous in the human body, undergoing molecular motion when the machine comes across a stimulus. For example, if the molecular machines switch on in acidic environments, it would work well for cancer treatments as tumour sites are more acidic than other parts of the body - releasing tumour killing drugs at the site.

As the body possesses natural functional molecular machines such as the enzyme ATP synthase or the "motor protein" kinesin, which are vital for a range of biological functions, this breakthrough could lead to treatments for diseases that arise from the lack of these natural molecular machines. The most recent atypical invention includes a cyborg sperm to address fertility issues.

It could also yield applications in the design of smart materials, of which further in the future, what seems impossible, might be a reality, in which minute surgeons could be deployed to operate on tumours or infected sites, reducing the risks and consequences of surgery drastically.

On the downside, nanotechnology holds a lot of destructive potential, as it could be weaponised or run amok in an accidental gray goo scenario. However, with this prize, it is clear that nanotechnology has shown its potential and cemented its position in future research. MIMS

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