A scientist from Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) created the world’s smallest drill – 50,000 times smaller than the breadth of a human hair!

NanometreThe drill, which measures just two nanometers long, has been created and analysed by Dr Mohammad Yousef, associate professor of physics at WCM-Q, in collaboration with an international team of scientists from the University of Oregon, UT Southwestern Medical Center, the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

The product of a decade-long research, the nano-drill has been engineered from a section of protein and may have potential applications in the delivery of drugs to targeted areas within the human body.

The research team behind the drill was initially concerned with proteins and why they are structured the way they are. But in the course of that work, they discovered the potential to re-purpose a protein for alternative uses. Using a protein that in nature eats up bacterial cell walls, the team engineered a section of it to act in a different way.

Dr Yousef, the lead author of the nano-drill research paper, said the protein’s structure had a ‘spring’ at the surface which made it an ideal candidate for this work.

He said that they saw a section of the spring tighten and has its motion limited when exposed to a chemical called guanidinium. The guanidinium essentially anchors part of the spring. When the guanidinium is removed, the spring then moves to the left. When guanidinium was added once again, the anchor was re-established and the spring moved to the right. The motion is the same that one would see in a hammer drill.

But although the team knew that the movement occurred and had static images of the spring in different locations, they were unaware of the movement itself.

Dr Yousef explained that they took static pictures of the ‘on’ and ‘off’ states but was not aware of what was happening in between. He said that this is essential to the design if they want to use the drill in applications – they need to know exactly how the spring moves between the two locations.

We need a movie, not just a static picture. The entire drill might disassemble, which we don’t want.

The team turned to super-computing to help solve the problem and has now seen the first few frames of movement. He said they now have the first glimpse of the ‘movie’.

We know the first shot, we know the last shot and now we have some of the film itself. The movement itself is very significant as it spans the entire structure of the protein, so there are undoubtedly applications out there. I envisage that it could be used for minimally-invasive procedures and personalised medicine, and it could be used to target individual cells with drugs, it could be used as a biosensor as well.

Dr Yousef and the research team will now continue to work on viewing the entire ‘film’ of the drill in action. The research can be accessed through this link: onlinelibrary.wiley.com.