Nader Jalili, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, is working to create a con­trolled nanorobot that will be capable of per­forming non-​​invasive cancer surgery with a degree of pre­ci­sion not pos­sible through existing sur­gical procedures.

At about the size of a ring box, nanoro­bots could rev­o­lu­tionize sur­gical prac­tice within the next five to 10 years by making pro­ce­dures of all sorts more pre­cise and safer, said Jalili.

Pre­ci­sion,” he said, “is one of the most impor­tant aspects of a sur­gical procedure.”

Guided by image-​​based infor­ma­tion, the futur­istic mechan­ical device would rely on a number of motorsthat move in tiny, exact incre­ments, enabling it to pin­point the exact loca­tion of a tumor or other sur­gical object.

While a surgeon’s instru­ments cannot get to within a mil­limeter of a tumor, we will be able to pre­cisely guide the robot to a loca­tion at a sub-​​nanometer or nanometer res­o­lu­tion, making us able to see things that we could never see before,” Jalili said. A nanometer is .000001 mil­lime­ters, and a nan­otube is 1/1,000th of the thick­ness of a human hair.

His nanoro­bots could also be used to take minute skin sam­ples for patho­log­ical testing as well as for diag­nostic pur­poses, or to inject med­i­cine or other fluids very pre­cisely into a patient’s body in order to destroy a tumor.

Jalili is cur­rently designing motion algo­rithms and preparing to test his nanoro­bots for dif­ferent tasks.

Nanoro­bots are made up of sen­sors and actu­a­tors derived from spe­cial nano­ma­te­rials, such as syn­thetic zinc oxide, quartz and gold, which have unique fea­tures in the nanoscale.

Applying mechan­ical force to these nano­ma­te­rials pro­duces elec­trical energy, turning some into sen­sors that track motion, move­ment and direc­tion, and others into actu­a­tors that con­vert elec­trical energy into mechan­ical motion, to move parts such as a nanorobot’s gripper.

Effec­tive nanoro­bots would not put sur­geons out of work, said Jalili. Rather, they would take on super­vi­sory roles in the oper­ating room. He likened the role of a sur­geon who works with a nanorobot to that of a pilot who puts his plane on cruise control.

You don’t want to go to sleep when you’re in cruise con­trol,” he said. “Sur­geons will follow the pro­ce­dure and will be super­vi­sors in case some­thing goes wrong.”

Jalili’s research has been backed by a five-​​year, $400,000 National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) CAREER Award. He also won a $350,000 NSF instru­men­ta­tion grant to pur­chase a laser-​​based micro-​​system ana­lyzer to view and mea­sure nano-objects—and other materials—in the nanoscale.