Tiny Magnetic Robots may be New Cancer-Fighting Hero

Each field of robotics has its own challenges and obstacles that require a great amount of creativity from R&D, but some of the most unique challenges arise in the field of medical robotics. Here ‘safety’ takes on a whole new meaning, and the problems of size are miniscule. Still, as robotics offers a brand new window into the human body, scientists and engineers are working relentlessly to pioneer this frontier.

Magnetic Microbots to Fight Cancer
by Sylvain Martel

In a room next door, my engineering graduate students and I held our breath. We were testing a program designed to manipulate the machine [MRI]’s magnetic forces, which would guide the bead like a remote-controlled submarine. Or so we hoped.

On a computer screen, the bead appeared as a square white tracking icon perched on the gray, wormlike image of the scanned artery. We stared at the square and waited. Nothing. Seconds ticked by, and still the bead refused to budge. Then suddenly the room erupted in cheers as we clapped our hands to our mouths and pointed at the screen. There, the bead was hopping up and down the artery, tagging every waypoint we had plotted.

That was the first time anyone had steered an object wirelessly through the blood vessel of a living creature. The experiment convinced us that we could engineer miniature machines to navigate the vast circulatory system of the human body. The microrobots would be able to travel deep inside the body, cruising our tiniest blood vessels to places that catheters can’t go and performing tasks that would be impossible without invasive procedures.

It’s easy to imagine many such tasks—delicate surgeries, diagnostic tests, and the installation of stents and other artificial structures. But the first real application will be treating cancers. Today’s cancer drugs work by circulating throughout the body, killing healthy cells along with cancerous ones. Even antibody-equipped drugs designed to target cancer cells don’t always hit their marks. Injecting drugs into a tumor is out of the question because the pressure would cause cells to spew from it like a volcano, spreading the disease elsewhere. So why not deploy robots to deliver the medicine?

Read the full article at IEEE Spectrum, complete with a run down of several medical bots in development. What other sorts of health problems do you see micro-robots tackling?


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