As the nanomotors, which are rocket-shaped metal particles, move around inside the cells, they spin and batter against the cell membrane, a research team at Penn State University reported Monday.
"As these nanomotors move around and bump into structures inside the cells, the live cells show internal mechanical responses that no one has seen before," material chemistry and physics Professor Tom Mallouk said. "This research is a vivid demonstration that it may be possible to use synthetic nanomotors to study cell biology in new ways."
The ability of nanomotors to affect living cells holds promise for medicine, he said.
"We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside," he said. "Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs non-invasively to living tissues."
For their experiments, the team used HeLa cells, a line of human cervical cancer cells typically used in research studies. At low ultrasonic power, Mallouk explained, the nanomotors had little effect on the cells. But when the power was increased, the nanomotors began moving around and bumping into organelles -- structures within a cell that perform specific functions.
"One dream application of ours is Fantastic Voyage-style medicine, where nanomotors would cruise around inside the body, communicating with each other and performing various kinds of diagnoses and therapy," he said.