Medical Micro-Robots Bring Fantastic Voyage to Life
Robots always have been the darlings of the science-fiction world. We've had law-abiding robots (Isaac Asimov's novels), cute robots (R2D2 in Star Wars), evil robots (The Terminator), and yes -- medical robots. In Star Trek Voyager, an "emergency medical android" performs miracle cures, and in the 1996 film, Fantastic Voyage, a submarine named "Proteus" gets miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a key character to heal a clot in his brain.
Proving the old axiom that science fiction merely precedes reality, scientists in Australia have designed miniature robots capable of navigating human blood vessels. The teeny microbots are only a few hairs wide and a quarter of a millimeter long. The tiny size of the devices allows them to swim inside of the smallest blood vessels in the brain, just like in the movie, and potentially, to perform otherwise impossible medical procedures.
The lead researcher, James Friend of Monash University, Australia, explains the advantages of microbot technology. "Using conventional technology when you have an injury or a blood clot in the brain, to get to the region a surgeon will need to push a catheter through the groin to the brain via the carotid. Due to the difficulty reaching certain areas, some 40 per cent of these surgeries fail because, as the surgeon uses the catheters, they puncture the artery." But the new microbots can fit into those narrow areas, they can be steered via remote control, and they're designed to cause no injuries en route.
The micro-robots use flagella-like tails attached to tiny, high-powered motors for propulsion. Apparently, the most difficult challenge has been designing a propulsion system powerful enough to move the robots "upstream" through the blood vessels, and that's what the flagella do -- they impel the robot forward, moving it much in the same way that bacteria move. Plans are to have a prototype ready by next year that will, "swim to the injured area and swim out of the body without any catheters involved," says Dr. Friend.
This microbot has been named "Proteus" after the submarine in Fantastic Voyage. The researchers hope to use the micro-robots for transmitting images from places inside the body otherwise not accessible, to deliver medications and micro-devices, and for performing surgery that wouldn't be possible otherwise. "For the moment, we are going for observation, because it is the easiest thing to do," said Dr. Friend. "From that point on, we will go for other kinds of operations, mainly snipping and cutting."
Amazing as this new technology seems, it isn't the first or only real-life foray in this direction. In Japan, scientists have been exploring how to use robots driven by magnetic impulses as guides for catheters, colonoscopes, and endoscopic surgeries. Also, researchers at Japan's Ritsumeikan University have developed a beetle-like mini-robot that can live inside your body to locate and treat cancer, without surgery. At Chonnam National University in Korea, scientists have developed micro-robots with six legs that use the body's glucose for propulsion as they clear blocked arteries. Israeli researchers under the direction of Dr. Moshe Shoham have been developing micro-robots that navigate the spinal canal to help physicians perform delicate surgeries. Mini robots already lead in performing prostatectomies and in certain imaging tasks.
Dr. Shoham, the Israeli surgeon mentioned above, predicts that micro-robots will play increasingly essential roles in medicine. "I believe that in the future there will be micro-robots that will be permanently implanted in our bodies and will be able to navigate to problematic points," he says "This is a step up for micro-penetration into the human body."
While the healing implications seem spectacular, some sci-fi fans might get chills thinking about this possibility, especially in light of the fact that researchers involved in another branch of the field have developed robots capable of developing and displaying emotions. (Oh my yes, you read that correctly!) If these technologies meld, what happens if a micro-robot that lives, say, near your left femur, gets angry with you? Will the little bugger have to take the Hippocratic Oath? But all kidding aside -- the fact is that micro-robots have moved from the realm of fiction to reality, and the healing possibilities could revolutionize medicine.
Ah! Now if only modern medicine could latch onto the idea that an even better option would be to help people make choices that prevent them from getting sick in the first place. Maybe a robot planted in the brain could help with those decisions...or not.