Miniature machines that can be inserted into the body to target disease are a step nearer to reality, following a development by scientists.

Researchers say the devices could be developed to enter cells harmlessly and carry out specific tasks. These could include triggering the production of drugs at the site of a tumour or blood clot - without affecting other cells in the body.

The machine, which is being developed by University of Edinburgh scientists, comprises tiny amounts of the metal palladium encased in a harmless capsule. Once placed in the cell, the metal could help trigger reactions to fight disease, without disrupting routine cell functions.

Palladium is commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry to facilitate or speed up chemical reactions that produce drugs. Scientists hope to harness its potential to create treatments at the site of disease. This could deliver effective treatment with few side-effects.

Researchers have developed a simple method for fine-tuning palladium in the lab to enable it to perform specific tasks, for example by combining it with chemotherapy drugs to target cancer, without affecting the rest of the body. This could help curb side-effects associated with chemotherapy such as vomiting, lowered immunity and hair loss.

The study, published in Nature Protocol, was carried out in collaboration with the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the University of Granada. It was supported by the Medical Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Royal Society, the Government of Malaysia and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Professor Mark Bradley of the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry, who led the research, said: "This technique should enable powerful drugs to be made directly where they are needed at the site of the cancer or infection, and once fully developed promises to be a useful weapon against disease."

This story is reprinted from material from the University of Edinburgh. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier.