New Remote-Controlled Microrobots for Medical Operations

Monday, September 12, 2016 - 23:02

Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich have developed a new method for building microrobots that could be used in the body to deliver drugs and perform other medical operations.

According to Science Daily, these robots are designed to enter the human body, where they can deliver drugs at specific locations or perform precise operations like clearing clogged-up arteries.

Selman Sakar, EPFL scientist, in collaboration with Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson at ETHZ developed a simple and versatile method for building such bio-inspired robots and equipping them with advanced features. Unlike conventional robots, these microrobots are soft, flexible, and motor-less. They are made of a biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic nanoparticles.

Building one of these microrobots involves several steps. First, the nanoparticles are placed inside layers of a biocompatible hydrogel. Then an electromagnetic field is applied to orientate the nanoparticles at different parts of the robot, followed by a polymerization step to "solidify" the hydrogel. After this, the robot is placed in water where it folds in specific ways depending on the orientation of the nanoparticles inside the gel, to form the final overall 3D architecture of the microrobot.

Once the final shape is achieved, an electromagnetic field is used to make the robot swim. Then, when heated, the robot changes shape and "unfolds." This fabrication approach allowed the researchers to build microrobots that mimic the bacterium that causes African trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as sleeping sickness. This particular bacterium uses a flagellum for propulsion, but hides it away once inside a person's bloodstream as a survival mechanism.

For now, the microrobots are still in development. "There are still many factors we have to take into account," says Sakar. "For instance, we have to make sure that the microrobots won't cause any side-effects in patients."

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