Medical robots that get under your skin
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By Karin Kloosterman
September 10, 2009
The miniature robotic fly created at the Technion in Israel is designed to diagnose diseases and deliver drugs to infected tumors.
Israeli researchers have created a miniature robotic fly that can crawl through your arteries and veins to diagnose and treat what ails you.
A snake-shaped robot sent in through a small incision so you don't have to have open-heart surgery. Robotic marching ants that you can send in to inspect water pipes for leaks. And now the latest research from the Robotics Laboratory at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa: Creepy and crawly fly-like robots that get under your skin for very good medical reasons.
Prof. Moshe Shaham, head of the Robotics Laboratory, and his team have developed a miniature robotic fly, about 0.04 inches in diameter, that can enter the body to diagnose diseases and conditions like blocked arteries and deliver drugs like a bomb to infected tumors.
Based on Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology, the tiny robot crawls through arteries and veins. It is steered by a magnet that's moved over the body from the outside. Its miniscule outstretched arms grip the sides of the vessel walls as it zeroes in on its targeted location.
Currently in the early prototype stages, the researchers plan on scaling down the robot to a 10th of its current diameter - about 100 microns. That will bring it a step closer to much less invasive diagnosis and treatment.
Unprecedented miniaturized medicine
"We see that more and more miniature devices and research in the medical field are going in this direction: Less invasive medicine and targeted drugs," Shaham tells ISRAEL21c.
Partners in the research include Dr. Nir Shvalb from Israel's Ariel College and Dr. Oded Solomon from the Technion. "This accomplishment of miniaturization is without precedent, as is the ability to control the robot's activity for unlimited periods of time, for any medical procedure," Solomon told the press.
"We hope this discovery can be used to improve the quality of care for diseases and many other conditions," he added.
Shaham concurs, adding that mini medical devices are the future of medicine: "We will see more and more [medical practitioners] working in this way. Of course, targeted medicine can release drugs in a specific location. We try to work along these lines. Drugs that can home in on a certain location using a small robot that goes to the right location."
Robots with backbones
Shaham's research in medical robotics has already borne fruit in a device called SpineAssist, which is marketed by Mazor Surgical Technologies. "Robots are already performing surgeries on a daily basis - performing spine surgeries around the world," he says.
Using a controller, the researchers can move the little fly-like robotic creature at speeds of 0.35 mm a second by varying the magnetic field.
And because the control unit is external to the body, it can work for limitless periods of time, never needing a battery recharge during a procedure.
The researchers believe that with the addition of a camera, the latest tiny bot could be perfected for use in brachytherapy (short distance radiation therapy), which is commonly used for treating head, neck and prostate cancer.
Borrowing from sperm propulsion
In parallel, Robotics Lab researchers are also developing a tiny bot that swims, but not with arms, fins or flippers.
The research carried out by Dr. Gabor Kosa and Technion colleagues, uses a propulsion-based system - and mimics an ancient biological structure called a flagella, which has long thread-like appendages that give cells the ability to move and swim. It's flagella that allow sperm to swim earnestly through vaginal fluid toward the waiting eggs.
But at the Technion lab, they're thinking about fluid of another kind. One of the locations being targeted is CFS or cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that the brain floats in. It also surrounds the spinal system.
"We could use such a device for diagnosis or to feel around with electrodes, looking for cancer or other problems," explains Shaham.
The Technion's interest in the Robotics Lab piqued about nine years ago, but Shaham admits that he's been focused on the work for about two decades and has a list of additional robotic research inventions sure to hit the news later this year.