This is a solid piece of proof that the future of medicine–or of diagnosis, treatments and prevention of diseases–will involve small robots.
Scientist Selman Sakar of EPFL, a Research institution in Lausanne, Switzerland, who collaborated with Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson of ETHZ, a university in Zurich, has published a new study in the journal Nature Communications, and it claims that small robots that can deliver drug and assist doctors during medical operations are a step closer to reality.
The team says it is developing a simple and versatile method for building tiny robots–or microbots–that are bio-inspired, meaning they were inspired by nature’s work, and they are equipped with advanced features. In addition, they’ve also created a platform for the testing of several robots designs in which scientists also study different modes of locomotion for effectivity.
Microbots that act like bacterium
They’re not your typical robots. They are soft, flexible and, read this: motor-less. Sakar and the team have created them using biocompatible hydrogel, and magnetic nanoparticles which have two functions. First, the nanoparticles give the tiny robots their shape during the manufacturing process. Second, they make the robots swim and move when an electromagnetic field is applied.
Building the microbots involves several steps. First, the nanoparticles are placed inside layers of a biocompatible hydrogel. Then, the team has applied an electromagnetic field to orientate the nanoparticles at different parts of the microbots, followed by a polymerization step for the solidification of the hydrogel. After that, the robot is placed underwater where it folds in specific ways depending on the nanoparticles’ orientation inside the gel. This allows scientists to form the final 3D architecture of the microbot. Once the target shape is achieved, scientists use electromagnetic field to make the robot swim. When heated, it can change shape and ‘unfolds.’
The process, says the researchers, allowed them to build tiny robots that mimic the bacterium that causes the African trypanosomiasis, a parasite simply known as the sleeping sickness. The said bacterium is using flagellum for propulsion, but hides it away when inside a host’s bloodstream.
The team has tested several designs for the microbots for the imitation of the sleeping sickness bacterium’s flagellum.
In the paper, they revealed a prototype with bacterium-like flagellum allowing it to swim. And when heated using a laser, the microbot’s flagellum wraps around its body, hence it is hidden.
In the press release, Sakar underlines that the microbots are still in development, meaning they’re not yet ready for real operations or drug delivery. They are still examining several factors, he said, including the possible side-effects of the microbots in patients.
Microbots in research and development for medicine
This research might remind some of you that scientists are seriously considering using tiny robots for treatment of diseases and even for delivery of drugs into the human body.
Last year, several reports including of the Smithsonian, revealed that scientists have been testing tiny robots for clearing arteries. That, and the new bacterium-like robots of the EPFL and ETHZ scientists, remind us that in the not-too-distant-future, robots could be everywhere, including your own body.
Credit: The screen grab showing the microbot is courtesy of EPFL / EPFZ.