nanobots

Fantastic voyage: Medicine's tiny helpers

August 31, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Science fiction has nothing on new medical devices: miniature robots that explore and repair patients' bodies from within.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

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FORTUNE -- The first generation of camera-equipped pills actually appeared more than a decade ago but were passive -- you swallowed, waited, and hoped the digestive process did the rest. Today tiny tools are helping surgeons pull off mind-blowing procedures. Within a decade these three devices could even seek out maladies and stop them in their tracks.

Nanobots

The ultimate in-body robot is smaller than a blood cell. After being injected into a patient's bloodstream, nanoparticles made out of human genetic material seek out harmful cells -- cancer, for example -- and deliver drugs.

Pinchers and clinchers

Skinny, millimeter-long tools made up of extremely small gears and pulleys navigate through blood vessels, grabbing and fusing together bits of tissue. Why? To make delicate repairs -- on a live, beating pig heart in one recent trial.

Mini-assistants

Carrying cameras, scissors, forceps -- even chemical-detecting sensors -- these worm-like robots squirm through the body, assisting with surgeries or diagnoses. The newest models from Carnegie Mellon University have a diameter smaller than a dime's.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the September 3, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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