Microscopic robots injected into veins could be next weapon in disease fight

The Daily Star’s FREE newsletter is spectacular! Sign up today for the best stories straight to your inbox

The idea of a microscopic doctor being injected into your veins to do battle with cancer cells or deliver medication just where it’s needed has been the stuff of science fiction – until now.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have devised an army of tiny robots – each one thinner than a human hair – who can march through blood vessels and zap disease at its source.

The four-legged micro-bots are injected into the body using a hypodermic needle.

This technology opens the door to direct drug delivery into organs – reducing the risk of side effects.

The laser-controlled micro-bots could monitor nerve impulses in the heart or brain, scientists say.

The concept resembles the plot of movies such as Innerspace, or the classic Fantastic Voyage in which a microscopic submarine was injected into a patient, allowing a team of scientists to use a laser to destroy a blood clot.

Lead author Dr Marc Miskin, now at Pennsylvania University, said: "Controlling a tiny robot is maybe as close as you can come to shrinking yourself down.

"I think machines like these are going to take us into all kinds of amazing worlds that are too small to see."

  • Coronavirus will be present 'forever' with regular vaccinations needed, expert warns

They are the first robots smaller than 0.1 mm in size in which can be directed by on-board electronics.

The legs, "or actuators", bend when stimulated by laser light – causing a walking motion. In tests over a million bots were produced on a 4-inch wafer of silicon.

The micro-bots are powered by solar cells and are made using a technique called photo-voltaics.

The legs are wired to several 'photo-voltaic' patches, solar cells, on the machine's central chassis.

When an operator shines a laser on them they "bend and unbend", said the researchers.

This can alternate between bending the front and back legs by aiming the light on different patches – propelling the robot.

Dr Miskin said: "They are robust, surviving highly acidic environments and temperature variations of more than 200C.

"They can be injected with a hypodermic needle – offering the potential to explore biological environments."

  • Elon Musk says AI will be smarter than humans within 5 years – and it'll get 'weird'

Miniaturisation of electronics to produce cell-sized robots is a "holy grail" of medical research.

But there has been a lack of suitable systems that can be built on the micro-metre scale.

The bots described in Nature get round this problem. They are about 5 microns thick, 40 microns wide and 40 to 70 microns in length. A micron is a millionth of a metre.

Each consists of a simple circuit made from silicon – which essentially functions as the body and brain.

Four electro-chemical actuators function as legs.

The researchers control the robots by flashing laser pulses at different cells – each of which charges up a separate set of legs.

By toggling the laser back and forth between those at the front and back, the robot walks.

Despite being high-tech, they operate using only a fraction of a volt and consume a mere 10 billionths of a watt.

They can survive the harshest of conditions. The limbs of the micro-bots are also incredibly strong.

  • UK coronavirus patient zero identified as researchers investigate disease’s origins

Each robot's body is 1,000 times thicker and 8,000 times heavier than each leg. As they are manufactured from silicon sensors will be able to measure temperature and electrical pulses.

Dr Miskin's team at Cornell University in New York – where he was previously based – is now exploring ways to soup them up with more complicated electronics and onboard computation.

The improvements could lead to swarms of microscopic robots suturing blood vessels or being dispatched en masse to probe entire areas of the human brain.

Other possible applications include using them to fix complex electronic devices from the inside.

Dr Sam Stanton, program manager for the Army Research Office in the US which part-funded the project, said: "This breakthrough provides exciting scientific opportunity for investigating new questions relevant to the physics of active matter."

He added: "It may ultimately lead to futuristic robotic materials."

Professor Michael Strano, a chemical engineer at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who was not involved in the study, said: "The compatibility of these devices with micro-electronics systems suggests a path to the mass manufacture of autonomous micro-robots.

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Cancer
  • Robots

Source: Read Full Article