Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities

© 1999 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999 The Biological Tradition

The general idea of biological engineering stretches back at least to the mid-19th century, but the first science fiction story involving actual genetic engineering was "Proteus Island" (1936), written by the chemical engineer Stanley Weinbaum. Artificial engineered organisms subsequently appeared in minor roles in several stories, a notable example being the familiars employed by the fake witches in Fritz Leiber's "Gather, Darkness!" (1943), and A.E. van Vogt used "gene transformation" to create the superman in "Slan" (1940). The first artificially evolved creatures appeared in Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" (1941), wherein a biochemist established conditions allowing accelerated artificial evolution, creating the Neoterics, a submillimeter-sized race of intelligent hypermetabolic creatures which could accomplish tasks very rapidly. The first artificially designed microcreatures appeared in James Blish's "Surface Tension" (1952). In this story, crash-landed dying human astronauts create a completely new form of humanity -- tiny men and women reduced to protozoan size -- who are seeded in the pools and puddles at the surface of the new planet, and who go on to master the biotechnology necessary to travel from one water puddle to another.

The scientific tradition of biological nanomachines for medical purposes began in 1964 when Robert Ettinger, an early cryonics pioneer, suggested that cellular-level or even molecular-level repair might be developed for life extension. Ettinger157 speculated that "...surgeon machines, working 24 hours a day for decades or even centuries, will tenderly restore the frozen brains, cell by cell, or even molecule by molecule in critical areas."

In 1965, the synthesis of artificial life was publicly proposed as a national goal by the president of the American Chemical Society, Professor Charles Price, who pointed out that many new types of life might be made, not "mere imitations" of biology as we know it.153

In 1967, Isaac Asimov2257 suggested the future possibility of "factories...where the working machinery consists of submicroscopic nucleic acids" and that a "repertoire of hundreds or thousands of complex enzymes" could be used to "bring about chemical reactions more conveniently than any methods now used" and also for "helping to construct life."

In 1968, G.R. Taylor2258 cited the possibilities for genetic engineering and genetic surgery: "The microsurgery of DNA may possibly be achieved by physical methods: fine beams of radiation (probably laser light or pulsed X-rays) may be used to slice through the DNA molecule at desired points." He also cited predictions that bacteria would soon be programmed.

In 1969, J. White2259 suggested that a modified virus could be used as a cell repair machine: "It has been proposed that appropriate genetic information be introduced by means of artificially constructed virus particles into a congenitally defective cell for remedy; similar means may be used for the more general case of repair. The repair program must use means such as protein synthesis and metabolic pathways to diagnose and repair any damage... [Information] can be preserved by specifying that the repair program incorporate appropriate RNA tapes into itself..."

In 1970, Jeon et al158 carried out "the reassembly of Amoeba proteus from its major components: namely nucleus, cytoplasm, and cell membrane," taken from three different cells.

In 1972, Ettinger160 proposed using genetic engineering to make microscopic biorobots: "Genetic engineering's most sensational impact will concern the modification of humans, but it will have other uses as well. Some of the "robots" that will serve us will need to be nanominiaturized." Existing organisms could be modified to make biologically-based programmable biorobots for medical applications: "If we can design sufficiently complex behavior patterns into microscopically small organisms, there are obvious and endless possibilities, some of the most important in the medical area. Perhaps we can carry guardian and scavenger organisms in the blood, superior to the leukocytes and other agents of our human heritage, that will efficiently hunt down and clean out a wide variety of hostile or damaging invaders." Computerized cellular repair machines "must use means such as protein synthesis and metabolic pathways to diagnose and repair any damage...[Information] can be preserved by specifying that the repair program incorporate appropriate RNA tapes into itself...." Also in 1972, Danielli2260 described various possibilities for generating new life forms via "life-synthesis" and genetic engineering, noting that "macromolecular engineering" might enable the development of very powerful and compact macromolecular computer systems.

In 1974, Halacy2261 noted "some rather inglorious ways" to use "the miracle of artificial life," including potential capabilities for growing diverse items ranging from computers to airplanes. Morowitz159 suggested cooling cells to cryogenic temperatures in order to analyze and determine their structure. Artificial cells could also be assembled at such temperatures and then be set in motion by thawing. Morowitz further reported that microsurgery experiments on amoebas "have been most dramatic. Cell fractions from four different animals can be injected into the eviscerated ghost of a fifth amoeba, and a living functioning organism results."

In 1975, Richard Laing2250 described the theoretical possibility of molecular machine self-replicators using molecular (data) tapes based on the idea of universal Turing machines, examining several ways that such "artificial organisms" might replicate themselves as "a vehicle for the exploration of broad biological possibilities."

In 1976, Donaldson2262 presented the first* detailed (and quite ambitious) list of biotechnological techniques that appeared necessary to achieve cell repair and might prove feasible, writing at a time that predated many current capabilities such as automated protein/DNA sequencing and synthesis, and most knowledge of restrictions on cellular developmental pathways and genetic programs and networks. For repair at the level of the cell, Donaldson's techniques would have included:

1. The ability to design enzymes to produce specific repair functions such as renaturing denatured proteins, joining broken lipoprotein complexes, annealing broken strands of DNA or RNA, reading proteins of existing or special types onto RNA and replicating them, and giving a cell the ability to metabolize new substrates, use novel cofactors, or construct essential amino acids;

2. Specially constructed bacteria or macrophages able to replicate themselves, spread throughout a specific target tissue, and carry out specific repairs according to the programs designed into their DNA/RNA; these could be designed to operate at unnatural temperatures or to utilize metabolic pathways not presently found in nature;

3. The abilities to re-introduce lost DNA or lost organelles such as mitochondria into a cell, to introduce entirely new forms of organelles perhaps to perform specific repair functions, and to introduce new metabolic capacities into a cell;

4. The ability to modify at will the developmental program of a cell, as for instance to induce postmitotic cells such as neurons to divide,* according to a specific program, forming daughter cells with specific properties; and

5. Several different types of repair bacteria able to work together in an integrated fashion, and linked together by chemical means (e.g. hormones), so as to apply optimal repairs to every body cell in order to (A) diagnose the precise nature of the damage, call other repair bacteria to its location, and report to the attending doctor that new types of repair bacteria other than those already introduced are needed, and (B) identify structures which must be preserved (e.g. memory) and reconstruct them if necessary.

* It is now known that genetic programs to allow postmitotic cell division do not exist for many cells, although in theory artificial programs could possibly be devised. Stem cells may differentiate, and in some cases cells may be induced to de-differentiate back to stem cells thus allowing subsequent division and re-differentiation -- but losing, in the case of neurons, the existing neural connections.

For repairs at the level of the whole organism, Donaldson offered the following rather aggressive biological nanotechnology techniques:

1. Understanding the physiology of aging combined with the ability to reverse it;

2. Control over growth and development, including the ability to program types of growth and development which do not naturally occur, such as growth of new eyes or other organs which have been lost or damaged, growth of an entire and well-formed body from a head alone, and regrowth of injured or lost brain tissue; and

3. Nonpermanent "substitute organs" which will take over from others which have been lost, including (A) the ability to keep a given tissue alive and healthy in vitro for an indefinite time and similar abilities for a body part, and (B) temporary replacements for any body organ which may have been lost. These would be used to support the body while new organs were growing, e.g. as "metabolic crutches." This capacity specifically includes the ability to make temporary replacements for diffuse systems such as the vascular or nervous systems. For instance, a specially created "plant" would grow an entire vascular system into the patient, down to replacement for the capillaries and venules from a single seed, always introducing its fibrils between cells and destroying none or very little of the original structure.

The last of these is a description of a (clearly speculative) "repair net," a concept which Donaldson may have been the first to propose in 1976. A whole-body repair net was later termed a "chrysalis",161,1724 and twelve years later, in 1988, Donaldson provided an artist's conception and an additional description of these proposed biotechnological instrumentalities:1724

"Severe crushing or mangling injuries require us to provide a new vascular system. The repair device might resemble a fungus, growing mycelia into the injured tissue. A repair net would grow into a [crushed] limb, guided by recognition of the injured cells and a plan for how the limb should look after repair....[In the most severe injuries,] a chrysalis first envelops the patient, then enters in between all his cells. It disassembles the patient, surrounding each cell with its own repair machinery and vascular system. The geometry already preserves information about locations of the patient's cells. If necessary, morphogen chemical gradients could also retain this information. A patient would [locally] swell up to 10 times original diameter. After repair, the chrysalis withdraws the same way it entered."

In 1977,* Darwin2263 further developed the theme of tissue repair and cellular repair biomachines, independently proposing a modified white blood cell to perform repair functions.

In 1981, Asimov2264 suggested that we "consider the bacteria. These are tiny living things made up of single cells far smaller than the cells in plants and animals....[We] can, by properly designing these tiniest slaves of ours, use them to reshape the world itself and build it close to our hearts' desire." More importantly, Donaldson161 elaborated on his earlier discussion2262 of how cryonically suspended human beings might be repaired. He extended the earlier concepts of Ettinger160 and White,2259 concluding that "with such hybrid technology as micro-miniature biological-mechanical machines the size of viruses" and related technology, "it seems unlikely that (to repair a single cell) there would be any difficulty at all in principle to carrying out any imaginable repair." He estimated that about 10 programmable cell-repair biomachines could be introduced into a cell that was under repair without causing too much mechanical disruption. In 1988, Donaldson1724 described artificial macrophages that "can carry control machinery to recognize target cells, responding only to them, or responding differently depending upon cell type or cell conditions. They can still work even if the target cell isn't functioning (unlike viruses), rebuild target cell machinery other than the genes, and transfer many more genes up to an entire copy of the patient's genome." They can also "communicate with one another [and] release diffusible chemicals to guide one another's behavior."

By the 1990s, bioengineered viruses of various types and certain other vectors were routinely being used in experimental genetic therapies3001-3011 as a means to target and penetrate certain cell populations, with the objective of inserting therapeutic DNA sequences into the nucleus of human target cells in vivo. Retrovirally-altered lymphocytes (T cells) began to be injected into humans for therapeutic purposes. Another example of an engineered cell in therapeutics was the use of genetically modified cerebral endothelial cell vectors to attack glioblastoma, which was being pursued by Neurotech (in Paris) in 1998. Engineered bacteria were being pursued by Vion Pharmaceuticals in collaboration with Yale University.3038 In their "Tumor Amplified Protein Expression Therapy" program, antibiotic-sensitive Salmonella typhimurium (food poisoning) bacteria were attenuated by removing the genes that produce purines vital to bacterial growth. The tamed strain (cell line VNP20009) could not long survive in healthy tissue, but quickly multiplied ~1000-fold inside tumors, which are rich in purines. The next step would be to add genes to the bacterium to produce anticancer proteins that can shrink tumors, or to modify the bacteria to deliver various enzymes, genes, or prodrugs for tumor cell growth regulation. The engineered bacteria were available in multiple serotypes (Section 8.5.2) to avoid potential immune response in the host. Phase I human clinical trials were expected to begin in 1999 using clinical dosages produced in 50-liter fermenters, and other possible bacterial vector species were being examined.

Micro-biorobotics was still regarded by many in the biotechnology community as a highly speculative topic in 1998. Glen A. Evans3014 described the possible construction of synthetic genomes and artificial organisms. His proposed strategy involves determining or designing the DNA sequence for the genome, synthesizing and assembling the genome, introducing the synthetic DNA into an enucleated pluripotent host cell, then introducing the host cell into an organism. Evans foresees the high throughput "read-out" of gene products discovered through genomic sequencing, rapid construction of designer genes and genomes, automated designer vector synthesis for gene replacement/insertional mutagenesis, and finally the construction of synthetic genomes and artificial organisms. Robert Bradbury3015 has considered requirements and costs for genome synthesis and replacement. For example, Bradbury estimates genome synthesis costs by assuming a projected ~$0.03/base for DNA synthesis (compared to ~$0.80-$1.00/base-micromole in 1999), with ~20,000 expressed genes per biorobotic cell with an average gene size of ~3000 bases, giving a ~60 megabase expressed genome per biorobotic cell (1 chromosome) and a raw synthesis cost of ~$3 million per designer cell line (excluding design costs). There has also been discussion of "chemical reaction automata" as precursors for synthetic organisms,3016 synthetic lifeforms3263 and "nanobiology",3017 "biorobotics",3079-3081 "cell rovers",3241 microbial engineering,1962,3248,3543,3544 lymphocyte engineering,965 and artificial chromosomes (Chapter 20), and cell engineering (Chapter 21) is rapidly gaining popularity.

* Post-publication note: Mike Darwin [personal communication, April 2006] reports that Reference 2263 "represents the first comprehensive exposition of cell and tissue repair using biologically-derived active repair devices. Jerry White (my friend and colleague, now cryopreserved) had previously conceived the idea of using genetically engineered viruses to augment repair capability in injured cells. However, this approach would clearly not be sufficient in cells which were no longer metabolically intact or functional. The concept (and the name) for the anabolocyte originated in the Winter of 1973 after participation in my first human cryopreservation (Clara Dastal) at the Cryonics Society of New York. Greg Fahy and I were pondering how it might be possible to repair literally billions of non-functional, severely injured cells in this cryopatient. After a restless night worrying over this problem I came up with the idea of genetically engineered leukocytes that would be able to either repair or replace damaged cells and tissue. In 1974 I sketched out some drawings and put the ideas into print.”


Last updated on 3 April 2006