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Micro-robots to perform medical procedures inside human body

Tue 26 Jul 2016

Sleeping sickness

Researchers in Switzerland are collaborating to develop a range of micro-robots which can be introduced into the human body to treat a variety of conditions, delivering drugs and performing minor operations.

The teams from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) hope that the small bots could help reduce the number of operations currently required for certain procedures, such as clearing clogged arteries.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, explained how the bots are flexible and soft, with no motor, and made using a biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic nanoparticles. An electromagnetic field is applied to orientate the nanoparticles, then a polymerisation process is used to solidify the hydrogel.

The scientists, headed up by Selman Sakar of EPFL, and Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson from EHTZ, were inspired by the bacterium which causes African trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as sleeping sickness. This matter uses a thread-like material called a flagellum to push itself around the body, and hides it away on entering the bloodstream as part of its survival mechanism.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 14.30.24‘We show that both a bacterium’s body and its flagellum play an important role in its movement,’ explained Sakar. ‘Our new production method lets us test an array of shapes and combinations to obtain the best motion capability for a given task. Our research also provides valuable insight into how bacteria move inside the human body and adapt to changes in their microenvironment,’ he added.

The robots can also be controlled using heat. When an increased temperature is applied, the bots’ structure unfolds, which will allow for drug delivery and other procedures.

The micro-robots are still in the development stage, with the researchers looking into the potential side effects when the micro-machines are introduced into the human body. ‘There are still many factors we have to take into account,’ concluded Sakar.


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