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Tiny robots are taking over medical technology

"The system is like a videogame".

Photograph: Getty Images

In a 2007 episode of surreal British comedy "The Mighty Boosh", Howard Moon and his blind friend Lester Corncrake board a submarine, which is reduced to microscopic size and injected into their friend Vince Noir’s bloodstream, to hunt down and kill a rogue jazz cell infecting his system with an awkward partiality for jazz.

The going is tough, but, of course, the pair wins through in the end, reaching Vince’s brain and eventually stabbing the invasive cell with a safety pin. Vince is saved and his worrying predilection for jazz is no more. 

Crazy, right? Well, not that crazy anymore. As nano-scale technology advances, the idea of tiny machines, barely visible to the human eye, travelling through our bodies and attacking uninvited guests, is not nearly as out there as it seems.

OK, we’re very unlikely to ever be able to shrink the people controlling the machines. And, granted, the miniscule robots being developed today don’t quite boast the complexity of a full-blown submarine; nor are they expected to be deployed to track down punk jazz cells. However, almost invisible nanorobots, which are capable of swimming through the bloodstream and reaching places existing devices – such as catheters – are too cumbersome to reach to either deliver drugs or destroy diseased tissues are becoming a reality. And, using technology usually associated with the gaming industry, they can be extremely precisely controlled.

One such system, which has been developed by a group of engineering students at the University of Alberta, Canada, shows particular promise for the medical industry. Essentially, the team has created a nano-scale robot, which can be controlled using a joystick to travel along a specific route, navigate an obstacle course or push micro-sized objects from one point to another. "The system is like a videogame," explained team member Yang Gao.

This is nothing new, of course. What is new, though, is the form of this tiny "robot": unlike the majority of its counterparts being developed at research centres around the world, which are solid and made up of components including miniscule motors, this little guy is made out of liquid, giving it the edge against its competition when it comes to navigating the complex web that is the human body.

"It’s very easy to change the size of the robot – one can simply inject a different volume when making the robot," Gao explained. "A liquid robot is a lot more suitable than a solid robot for biomedical purposes, too, as a solid robot can’t release drugs easily and tends to be more damaging inside the human body. Finally, the liquid robot is easy to control as it doesn’t travel too fast."

The robot is also magnetic, giving it extra advantages when it comes to being guided and held where it needs to be to release drugs and destroy tissues.

So, how long before the joysticks controlling these potentially disease-destroying droplets are taken from the hands of the engineers and given to the physicians? Well, there’s a way to go yet. While the U of A’s robot performed well in one out of the two challenges in its first public outing at the ICRA Robot Challenges at the IEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Karlsruhe, Germany, in May of this year, it didn’t do so well in the second. Furthermore, it’s a long road to get from the prototype stage to a fully-functioning device capable of performing complex medical procedures, or obliterating damaging cells "Mighty Boosh"-style. "There needs to be in-vitro and then clinical trials," Gao said. "It is still many, many years ahead". Nonetheless, the potential is definitely there. "It’s a promising concept that could one day save lives," she believes. 

More importantly, next time Vince decides to chomp into a jazz record, releasing its corrupting influence into his bloodstream, the rescue mission might not have to be quite so touch-and-go.