Breakthrough in Biocompatible Manufacturing Brings Medical Micromachines Closer to Reality
Precision medicine carried out by minuscule devices inside the body might be closer to reality thanks to a recent breakthrough in microscale bioengineering. A team of biomedical engineering specialists from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science developed a new small-scale manufacturing procedure for the production of soft hydrogel microrobots capable of high-precision operations inside the body.
The use of hydrogel as a structural material for these devices makes them fully compatible with living organisms. Despite its softness, the biocompatible material can be used to assemble highly-ordered mechanics in such tiny scales. Scientists successfully ran an experimental trial to treat bone cancer in mice.
Hydrogel additive manufacturing
"Implantable microelectromechanical systems" (iMEMS) takes advantage of the emergent technology of additive manufacturing (also known as "3D printing") and the mechanical and diffusive properties of hydrogel. By successively adding layers of hydrogel, it is possible to "print" microdevices capable of performing complex and precise mechanical operations efficiently enough to be used in a number of medical applications such as diagnosis, localized drug administration and high-precision surgery. Professor Sam Sia, head of the research team, claims that medical applications of this technology are manifold.
The potential of biocompatible implantable microdevices
Researchers performed localized drug administration in mice over the course of 10 days. They implanted and tested an iMEMS device in mice suffering from bone cancer, finding that drug administration through the hydrogel robot resulted in highly-efficient treatment with only one tenth of the typical dose in a standard chemotherapy session. With iron particles embedded in its structure, the iMEMS prototype was ingeniously controlled through external magnetic forces. The soft body of the machine meant that manipulating its intricate gears — turning valves or opening/closing small remedy compartments — would be a bigger technical challenge than if it was rigid. However, the ingenious design allows for effective medical operation with very low levels of toxicity to the organism.
Getting closer to medical microrobotics
Biocompatible engineering research has already provided several proofs of the concept for medical microdevices, but the iMEMS breakthrough helps to tackle three quintessential hurdles in this field: how to power the machines without an internal (a battery would be potentially toxic to the organism) power supply, how to precisely control their movement inside the body, and how to communicate wirelessly with the devices. This breakthrough is an important step forward to realize the promising potential of autonomous micromachines as highly-efficient medical devices, which could revolutionize the modern medicine.