Medical robotics has revolutionized how doctors diagnose and treat their patients. These tiny techno-wonders can retrieve tissue samples for biopsy, assist during surgery, spot disease and unclog arteries. Currently being developed in China: a micro-robot that can enter the brain to deliver drugs or other medical treatments.
The field of nanorobotics is hardly new. In 2018, scientists from Arizona State University (ASU) and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) published a study in Nature Biotechnology demonstrating how nanobots treat tumor growth by starving it of its blood supply. In the demonstration, robots smaller than a human hair cut off the blood supply to breast cancer, melanoma, ovarian and lung cancer tumors in mice. After two weeks of treatment, researchers reported the tumor tissue was shrinking.
Perhaps one of the most promising applications for nanorobotics lies in drug delivery. Currently, scientists in Shenzhen, China are developing a magnetically-controlled micro-robot that could enter the recipient’s brain via blood vessels, and send signals directly to the brain’s neurons for the purpose of delivering drugs or other treatment systems.
Xu Tiantian, a lead scientist for the project at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences says these “brain worms” will prove indispensable in the field of medicine. Tiantian told MSN News that delivering drugs to a targeted area, for example a tumor, limits the effect of the drug to the treated area, reducing side effects such as chemo sickness. Once the task is complete, the robot worm could exit the body.
Currently, brain implants can only be inserted via a surgical procedure and have a limited capability to integrate with the neurons, which means they can only perform a few simple tasks. However, robot worms are controlled by electromagnetic signals, so a patient could lie in a non-invasive, MRI-style machine that generates the magnetic field needed to control the robots.
Moreover, Tiantian says the new robots could “work as an implant for brain-computer interface that would make it possible to communicate directly with a computer without needing a keyboard or even a screen.” She explains that a transmitter would convert external signals into an electric pulse and connect with brain cells to stimulate activities that are not possible using current technology.
A series of videos released by the team show that the tiny intelligent robots – nicknamed ‘iRobots’ – can hop over hurdles, swim through a tube or squeeze through a gap half their body width. Measuring only 1mm by 3mm, the iRobots are comprised of a “head” made from a “neodymium-iron-boron magnet” and a “tail” constructed from a special composite material.
In their study, published by Advanced Functional Materials in January, the team discusses how changing the magnetic fields allows them to twist the robot’s body to achieve a wide range of movements such as crawling, swinging and rolling. The worm’s body is made from a transparent, temperature-responsive hydrogel that allows it to change color in different environments.
The future of nanorobotics in the world of medicine certainly seems promising, with the potential for shorter hospital stays, less invasive procedures, reduced wait times and identifying illnesses before they become terminal. What remains to be seen is not how the technology will be applied, but when.