This Biohybrid Robot Can Swim Through the Body

Saturday, November 25, 2017 - 16:15

Scientists have manipulated spirulina, a microscopic plant and food supplement, to travel through people in response to magnetic signals.

The biohybrid robot could one day carry drugs to specific parts of the body, minimizing side effects. What’s more, the robot—and its magnetic coat—appear to kill cancer cells, Science Daily reports.

Spirulina, an alga, looks like a tiny coiled spring at the microscopic level. Researchers had been trying, and succeeding to various degrees, to build bots out of rods, tubes, spheres, and even cages no bigger than a cell.

Outfitting these tiny devices with an ample power supply has been quite a challenge, as most potential fuels are toxic to humans. Another problem is steering such a microrobot through the body’s maze of proteins and other molecules, which requires both a way to control its movements and to see where it is.

So Li Zhang, a materials scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin, turned to magnetism—and living organisms. Magnetic fields created outside the body can penetrate living tissue without harm, allowing researchers to move magnetized objects around inside. For maximum mobility, a helical body propelled by twirling works best. Enter spirulina.

“It’s surprising that you can find in nature such a convenient structure and that it can behave so nicely,” says Peer Fischer, a physical chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, who was not involved in the study.

That biocompatibility is an important feature. The microrobot degrades in hours or days, depending on how thick the coating is; yet it doesn’t damage most cells. The one exception was cancer cells, some 90% of which were destroyed after tumor cells growing in a lab dish were exposed to the spirulina for 48 hours. Further tests indicated that spirulina produces a compound that’s toxic just to cancer cells.

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