New IBEC group leader a top name in nanomotors

Dr. Sánchez’s pioneering work on micro- and nanomotors – machines as small as bacteria that can target specific cells in the body for applications such as highly localised drug delivery – will contribute greatly to one of IBEC’s three areas of application, Bioengineering for Future Medicine. “Not only are existing nanorobots not yet small enough to slip inside a cell, the fuel used to propel them is so toxic that it kills all cells – even healthy ones – within minutes,” he explains. “We’re developing machine which are even smaller, avoiding metals in their construction, and doing away with the poisonous fuels altogether by using other methods of propulsion or guidance.”

His creations include self-propelling tubular motors that produce oxygen bubbles to keep themselves moving, particle transporters that can be switched on or off by UV light, and even tiny ‘microdrills’ that bore into cells and are steered magnetically. “Magnetism is a good option for remotely manipulating these types of machines, as the magnetic fields are not harmful to the human body,” he explains.

For Dr. Sánchez, the move to Barcelona is a homecoming. After completing his PhD in Chemistry at the Autonomous University of Barcelona he moved to Japan as an independent researcher and later to Germany, where he will continue to maintain a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems until December 2017. In 2012 he entered the Guinness Book of Records for inventing a type of micromotor, the world’s smallest ‘jet engine’ and in the same year his research was a recognised with an ERC Starting Grant. In 2014, Dr. Sanchez was named “Innovador del Año” by MIT Technology Review, the best of their ten selected “Innovadores menores de 35 España 2014”. It’s an honour shared by Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, creators of Google and Facebook respectively, both of whom are previous winners of the American edition of the award.

At IBEC Dr. Sánchez, who has also been appointed ICREA research professor, will continue to study how to control and direct his small machines. “We want to go even further and create machines that are the size of viruses, even though swimming at the micro- and nanoscale is already like swimming through honey,” he says. “There are various other applications for these micromachines, such as tackling male infertility or cleaning polluted water, but ultimately we have the basic aim of nanomedicine in mind: to deliver drugs inside – or at least very close to – cancer cells.”

“We’re delighted to welcome Samuel to IBEC, as incorporating brilliant young researchers not only strengthens the research community in Catalonia as a whole, but also helps us shape the IBEC of the future,” sayd director Josep Samitier. “We’re also looking forward to building a long and fruitful collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems as a result of his joint appointment with the two institutes in the next few years.”