Thanks to Robert A. Freitas Jr. for passing along this news item. NewScientist recently conducted a poll of its readers on What will be engineering’s Next Big Thing?. The answer to the question “Which technology do you think will have the biggest impact on human life in the next 30 years?“:

The clear winner with 3,097 votes — 35 per cent of the total — is Catherine McTeigue’s prediction of nanorobots that will repair cancerous cells:

Nanorobots fight the medical battles of the future

“Say the word “cancer” and people are fear-ridden. Projects being undertaken to harness nanotechnology and develop nanorobots to enter into the human body and repair cancerous cells, without the need for life-changing, disfiguring and painful chemotherapy, will have the greatest impact in the next 30 years. Watching loved ones suffer will be a thing of the past as the robots aid speedy recoveries, mortality rates drop, and as the technology is used more frequently, so will the cost, that oft deciding factor. An enormous step forwards for all mankind, in the form of a microscopic creature.”

The winning suggestion is a bit vague as to just what kind of medical nanorobots are envisioned. Recent posts (here, here, and here) suggest that near-term, incremental nanotechnology could be successful in curing cancer by selectively killing cancer cells while sparing normal cells. However, the phrase “repair cancerous cells” suggests advanced medical nanotechnology, of the type Freitas has proposed, that could be capable of molecular level repair of cells rather than necessarily killing cancerous cells. On the other hand, using near-term nanotechnology to deliver into cancer cells siRNA or miRNA to alter cellular gene expression might also make it possible to “repair cancerous cells”. The next poll we would like to see is something to the effect of “How do you think medical nanorobots will be developed over the next 30 years?”