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Researchers develop microrobotic system capable of rapid, targeted elimination of fungal pathogens

Fungal infections, such as those caused by Candida albicans, pose a significant global health risk due to their resistance to existing treatments. This issue has been recognized as a priority by the World Health Organization. Although nanomaterials show potential as antifungal agents, current versions lack the necessary strength and specificity for effective and prompt treatment. As a result, treatment times are prolonged, and there is a risk of off-target effects and drug resistance.

In a groundbreaking development with profound implications for global health, a team of researchers co-led by Hyun (Michel) Koo from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and Edward Steager from Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science has successfully created a microrobotic system capable of rapidly and precisely eliminating fungal pathogens. Candida infections, which form stubborn biofilms that are challenging to treat, motivated this collaboration. Koo explains that existing antifungal therapies are insufficient in quickly and effectively eradicating these pathogens. Hence, their joint effort combines clinical expertise with the robotics proficiency of Ed's team to present a new approach.

The researchers are affiliated with Penn Dental's Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry, which employs engineering and computational methods to gain new insights into disease prevention and promote innovation in oral and craniofacial healthcare. In their recently published study in Advanced Materials, the researchers took advantage of recent progress in catalytic nanoparticles called nanozymes. They constructed miniature robotic systems that can precisely target and swiftly destroy fungal cells. This was achieved by utilizing electromagnetic fields to control the shape and movements of these nanozyme microrobots with exceptional accuracy.

Steager's team focused on developing the motion, velocity, and configurations of the nanozymes, resulting in enhanced catalytic activity reminiscent of the enzyme peroxidase, which aids in breaking down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Consequently, this facilitates the production of a substantial amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS) at the infection site. These compounds have demonstrated their ability to destroy biofilms.

However, the truly groundbreaking aspect of these nanozyme assemblies was an unforeseen discovery: their remarkable affinity for binding to fungal cells. This characteristic allows for the localized accumulation of nanozymes precisely at the site of fungal presence, leading to targeted generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS).

"In comparison to human cells, our nanozyme assemblies exhibit a remarkable attraction to fungal cells," explains Steager. "This specific binding interaction creates a pathway for a potent and concentrated antifungal effect without affecting unaffected areas."

Combined with the inherent maneuverability of the nanozymes, this results in a powerful antifungal effect, effectively eradicating fungal cells within an unprecedented time frame of 10 minutes.

Looking ahead, the team envisions the potential of this distinctive approach using nanozyme-based robotics, as they explore new techniques for automating control and delivery of nanozymes. The implications extend beyond antifungal therapy, as the precise targeting and rapid action of this approach suggest potential for treating other forms of persistent infections.

"We have uncovered a formidable tool in the battle against pathogenic fungal infections," states Koo. "What we have accomplished here represents a significant leap forward, but it is also only the initial step. The magnetic and catalytic properties, combined with the unexpected binding specificity to fungi, offer exciting possibilities for an automated 'target-bind-and-kill' antifungal mechanism. We are eager to delve deeper and unlock its full potential."

This robotics-based approach opens up a new frontier in combating fungal infections and signifies a crucial milestone in antifungal therapy. With this new tool at their disposal, medical and dental professionals are now closer than ever to effectively combating these challenging pathogens.


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