SWARM study

SWARM – Small robots With collective behaviour as AI-driven cancer therapies; building Regulations for future nanoMedicines




Cancer Nanomedicine

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way. Many cancers can be cured. But in some people cancer can return. Cancer drugs, such as chemotherapy, need to be able to kill all the cancer cells, but this means they can also kill healthy cells.

Nanomedicine is the medical application of nanotechnology which works on tiny scales called ‘nanometres’ (one-billionth of a metre). Nanoparticles are nanosized particles that can assist the delivery of chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells. Scientists and Engineers can use simulations for selecting nanoparticles so drugs can more effectively reach the tumour while avoiding side effects.


Using simulations, scientists and engineers are working on adding swarm behaviour (present in social animals such as birds, ants, fish and termites) to nanoparticles and tiny robots (nanobots). Nanoswarms are multiple nanoparticles or nanobots that can interact with each other or their environment to achieve a task (e.g. deliver chemotherapy to a tumour without killing healthy cells), exhibiting collective behaviour inspired by swarm behaviour.

SWARM study – aim & research question

This project is investigating the ethics and regulations of the first in-human clinical trial of nanoswarms. We will be using interviews initially and focus groups in the next phase to explore the attitudes of stakeholders towards this swarm technology in healthcare, combined with ethical/legal analysis to consider how swarm medicine should be regulated in clinical trials.

The aim is to explore how nanoswarm medicine should be regulated once this technology is available for first-in human clinical trials.


This study is being organised by Matimba Swana, PhD student in the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems in Functionality Node and Academic Supervisors; Dr. Sabine Hauert, Reader (Associate Professor) in Swarm Engineering and Prof. Jonathan Ives, Professor of Empirical Bioethics & Deputy Director of Centre for Ethics in Medicine.

Would you like to participate?

Recruitment for interviews is now closed.

Recruitment for focus groups will open in 2023.

Five fun facts

  • The word swarm comes from the old English word swearm, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *swer- (“to buzz, hum”), which is thought to have been spoken as a single language 4500 BC to 2500 BC.
  • A swarm is a large or dense group.
  • Swarm behaviour, or swarming, is a collective behaviour common in biology, from cell colonies to insect swarms and bird flocks.
  • The term “swarm” is applied also to artificial entities which mimic collective behaviours, as in a robot swarm.
  • Swarm behaviour was first simulated on a computer in 1986 with the simulation program boids (an artificial life program which stimulates the flocking behaviour of birds).

The SWARM study is part of a larger UKRI-funded PhD which is part of the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Node in Functionality research programme, which is a multidisciplinary collaboration between ethicists, sociologists, computer scientists and engineers working together to produce guidelines for the development of trustworthy autonomous systems with evolving functionality.

Research Ethics Approval

This project has been reviewed and approved by the University of Bristol Faculty of Engineering Research Ethics Committee (Ref: 11141).

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