These tiny medical robots may one day be able to move inside your body.CU Boulder today

Multiple microrobots with three fins seen under a microscope

Medical “microrobots” could one day deliver prescription drugs throughout the human body. (Credit: Shields Institute)

A team of engineers at the University of Boulder have designed a new class of small, self-propelled robots that can dash through liquids at incredible speeds. And one day, it may even be possible to deliver prescription drugs to hard-to-reach places of the human body.

The researchers describe mini health care providers in a paper published last month in the journal Small.

“Microrobots” that are printed and observed under a microscope as they move in the presence of a sound field such as the kind used in ultrasound. One of the robot’s three fins is shorter than the other, so the robot moves in a looping pattern. (Credit: Shields Institute)

“Imagine what it would be like if a microrobot could perform a specific task inside the body, such as non-invasive surgery,” says Jin Li, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemical and Bioengineering. said Mr. “Instead of cutting into the patient, we can simply introduce the robot into the body with a pill or injection and the robot can perform the procedure itself.”

Li and his colleagues haven’t reached that stage yet, but the new research is a big step forward for small robots.

This group of microrobots is really small. Each is only 20 micrometers wide, a fraction of the width of a human hair. It is also very fast, able to move at about 3 millimeters per second, or about 9,000 times his own length in one minute. This is relatively many times faster than Cheetah.

They also have great potential. In a new study, the research group deployed these machines to deliver the common steroid drug dexamethasone into the bladders of laboratory mice. The results suggest that microrobots may be a useful tool for treating bladder disease and other ailments in people.

“Microscale robots have generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community, but what’s interesting about microscale robots for us is that they can be designed to perform useful tasks inside the body,” said co-authors of the new research. Author C. Wyatt Shields said: Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biotechnology.

great voyage

It might sound like some sci-fi ripoff, but it’s true. In the classic film Fantastic Voyages, a group of adventurers board a shrinking submarine and journey into the body of a comatose man.

 "Four men and one woman are on the most fantastic, spectacular and terrifying journey of their lives..."

Poster for the 1966 film Fantastic Voyages. (Credit: his CC photo via Flickr)

Close-up of a microrobot with three fins

A microrobot seen through a scanning electron microscope. (Credit: Shields Institute)

“The movie was released in 1966. Today we live in an era of micrometer- and nanometer-scale robots,” Lee said.

He envisions microrobots, like in the movies, circling in a person’s bloodstream, seeking out target sites for treatment of various ailments.

The team uses techniques similar to 3D printing to fabricate microrobots out of materials called biocompatible polymers. This machine resembles a small rocket with three small fins. They also include a few extra features. Each robot carries a tiny bubble of trapped air, similar to what happens when a glass is turned upside down and submerged in water. When the machine is exposed to a sound field like that used by ultrasound, the bubbles begin to vibrate violently, pushing water away and propelling the robot forward.

Other co-authors of the new study include Nick Bottenas, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Boulder. Ankur Gupta, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biotechnology. and engineering graduates Ritu Raj, Cooper Thom, Nicole Day and Peyton Martinez.

To put the microrobot to the test, researchers turned to a common human problem: bladder disease.

bring peace

Interstitial cystitis, also known as painful bladder syndrome, affects millions of Americans and, as the name suggests, can cause severe pelvic pain. Treating illnesses can be equally uncomfortable. Patients often have several visits over a period of weeks, requiring doctors to inject a strong solution of dexamethasone into the bladder through a catheter.

Lee believes microrobots may offer some relief.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers created a swarm of microrobots encapsulating high concentrations of dexamethasone. They then introduced thousands of these bots into the bladders of laboratory mice. The result is a real-life “wonderful voyage”. The microrobot will disperse through the organs before sticking to the bladder wall, possibly making it difficult to pee.

Once there, the machine slowly released dexamethasone over about two days. With such a steady flow of drugs, patients could receive more drugs over a longer period of time, potentially improving patient outcomes, Lee said.

He added that the team has a lot of work to do before the microrobot can move inside a real human body. First, the group wants the machine to be fully biodegradable, eventually dissolving in the body.

“If we can get these particles to work in the bladder, we can have a more sustained release of the drug, and perhaps patients won’t need to come to the clinic as often,” Lee said.

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