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Screech! Nanorockets can now be built with braking and steering systems

nanorocket braking steering redlight
Rockets come in many shapes and sizes — from the massive Saturn V to a group of tiny vessels used in some medical laboratory research. But where SpaceX proved last year it could land a rocket on a barge, steering and stopping nanorockets has, until recently, been less successful.

Now, nanorockets can be engineered with a steering system and brakes according to new research from chemists at Radboud University in the Netherlands, making these tiny machines more dependable as drug delivery system.

“Nanorockets are in essence smart self-assembled capsules,” lead researcher and head of Radboud’s bio-organic chemistry department, Daniela Wilson, told Digital Trends. A nozzle at the tip of the capsule allows catalysts like enzymes to enter a sort of cargo hold. When injected into the body, these capsules can carry drugs through the bloodstream. But it’s impossible to keep the nanorockets on task and under control without steering and brakes.

Radboud University
Radboud University

“A brake system is important because we need to be able to control the movement of the nanomotor to be independent of the amount of fuel present,” Wilson said, “and also to decouple the movement of the nanomotor once it reaches its target.”

To design the braking system, Wilson and her team grew thermo-responsive polymer brushes on the surface of their rockets. At higher temperatures — like those found in diseased tissue — the brushes collapse and cut off the flow of fuel to the capsules. They described their work in a paper published this week in the journal Nature Chemistry.

For steering, Wilson and her team grew magnetic nickel in their rockets’ cores and used magnetic fields to steer the rockets into precise positions. They published their results last month in the journal Advanced Materials.

“Synthetic mobile systems with controlled movement and directionality are expected to revolutionize the field of drug delivery by facilitating active transport of drugs at precise locations by controlled active movement,” Wilson said.

Although Wilson says the nanomotors are not toxic, her team is working to make them as biodegradable to safely pass through living organisms with minimal invasiveness.

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