Tiny robots are taking over medical technology

"The system is like a videogame".

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. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Elly Earls is a freelancer for NRi Digital

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era