A breast cancer cell. London Research Institute EM Unit/Cancer Research UK

South Korean scientists are developing a new treatment for cancer that will be more efficient and less harmful than chemotherapy. A team at Chonnam National University has developed nanorobots that can detect and treat cancer cells in a way that avoids the harmful side-effects of modern drugs.

According to a Reuters report, the scientists have genetically modified salmonella bacteria that are drawn to tumors by chemicals secreted by cancer cells. The bacteria carry microscopic robots, about 3 micrometers in size, that automatically release capsules filled with drugs when the bacteria reach the tumor.

“This is the world’s first nanorobot for active medical treatment,” the South Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, which helped fund the research, said in a press release.

Modern chemotherapy treatments use chemicals that attack cells that divide rapidly, one of the main characteristics of cancer cells. This also means that cells that normally divide rapidly, such as in hair, bone marrow and the digestive tract, are also effected, which causes most of the side effects of chemotherapy.

By delivering drugs directly to the tumor, the nanorobot, which the team named Bacteriobot, attacks the tumor while leaving healthy cells alone, sparing the patient from the side effects of chemotherapy.

Bacteriobot can only detect tumor-forming cancers, such as breast cancer and colorectal cancer, but the nanorobots will eventually be able to treat other cancers as well, the team says.

The nanorobot has worked successfully in mice, and the team is confident it will also work in humans. Bacteriobot has already been patented in the U.S., Japan and Europe.