Scientists Created Biocompatible Microrobots — And The Singularity Is Getting Closer

It sounds like a story from the future, but it's happening now.

Engineers at Columbia University have successfully designed biocompatible microdevices that are small enough to be safely implanted into the human body. 

Using biocompatible material known as hydrogels, which scientists have been studying for a long time, a team lead by biomedical engineering professor Sam Sia figured out a way to stack the soft material to give it three-dimensional moving parts. As a result, the microdevices (or microrobots, as science journalists are calling them) they create with the hydrogels can have "manifolds, valves, pumps, rotors and delivery of payloads." The resulting research was published this month in the Science Robotics journal.

It's a significant breakthrough that could revolutionize the way medical teams deliver drugs and treatment to the body. In fact, with the help of the microdevices' payload delivery mechanism, the team treated osteosarcoma — a bone cancer — in mice using the drug doxorubicin. Over the span of 10 days, according to the study, the researchers triggered releases of the drug, which in turn "showed high treatment efficacy and low toxicity, at 1/10 of the standard systemic chemotherapy dose." Talk about progress.

"We are still at the early stages of a commercialization pathway, but novel manufacturing platforms are a necessary first step in terms of opening up a world of implantable technologies not possible before," Sia told A Plus via email. "Our device was a few millimeters in total size, with individual components down to tens to hundreds of micrometers."

The devices Sia's team experimented with are also distinguishable in that they can be controlled remotely, and don't require a toxic battery supply. That toxicity in batteries has prevented most currently available micro-devices from being as popular or safe to use. Their idea for controlling the device was a novel one that worked out well.

"We control the functions of the microdevice by triggering movements of small components magnetically after implantation," Sia said. "We have also demonstrated ultrasound in another study.  This way, parts in the device can be moved precisely without an on-board power supply, which can otherwise place a big constraint on the size and complexity of the device."

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Development of these microdevices is eerily reminiscent of many of the predictions of Ray Kurzweil, who Bill Gates once described as "the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence." Kurzweil is director of artificial intelligence at Google and well-known for his big ideas.

In his book The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil imagines a world where technology and biology are nearly indistinguishable; where most humans are equipped with nano-sized technology that is controlling bodily functions or — as this research proposed — delivering drugs to the system.

As far as we can tell, this latest development certainly brings us one step closer to the future. 

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Cover photo: Shutterstock / nimon.


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