Tiny robot designed to fight cancer could be inserted into human body

Biodegradable microrobots could allow doctors to diagnose disease and deliver drugs

Spirulina algae coated with magnetic particles to form microrobots, which could be developed to diagnose and treat illness in hard-to-reach parts of the body.
Spirulina algae coated with magnetic particles to form microrobots, which could be developed to diagnose and treat illness in hard-to-reach parts of the body.

Scientists have developed tiny, remote-controlled “microrobots” with the ability to release cancer-targeting drugs, which they hope will one day be used to diagnose disease and administer drugs inside the human body.

Known as “biohybrids”, they are biological cells with useful engineered features added on, namely magnetic particles that allow them to be guided around the body.

But despite their highly technical capability, the robots are made from spirulina algae, a product more recognisable as a health food product than a construction material.

“Rather than fabricate a functional microrobot from scratch using intricate laboratory techniques and processes, we set out to directly engineer smart materials in nature,” said Professor Li Zhang, an engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who contributed to the Science Robotics study.

As a result they were able to make use of the algae’s intrinsic properties.

“For instance, because these biohybrid bots have a naturally fluorescent biological interior and magnetic iron-oxide exterior, we can track and actuate a swarm of those agents inside the body quite easily using fluorescence imaging and magnetic resonance imaging,” said Professor Zhang

This meant the scientists were able to control the robots remotely using magnetism as they moved them to sites in the stomachs of rats.

The devices also released cancer-fighting compounds as they degraded, meaning they could have the potential to treat disease.

“Creating robotic systems which can be propelled and guided in the body has been and still is a holy grail in the field of delivery system engineering,” said nanomedicine researcher Professor Kostas Kostarelos, another team member from the University of Manchester.

The robots are also able to sense changes in the body associated with the onset of illness, an ability that could make them useful tools for diagnosis.

It’s still early days for the robots. Rigorous tests need to be undertaken to ensure that having been inserted into the body, they either degrade naturally without leaving any harmful substances, or else they can be removed or excreted after finishing their work.

One of the key points about this work, said Professor Kostarelos, is that it represents the first example of how such robots could degrade naturally.

The iron magnetic coating helps fine-tune the rate at which the bots degrade in the body.

The real potential of these bots, according to Professor Kostarelos, lies in the potential to navigate them towards “hard-to-reach cavities of the human body” where they can treat or diagnose disease without the need for more invasive methods.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in