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

Photo: Getty
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No, Matteo Renzi's referendum isn't Italy's Brexit

Today's Morning Call. 

The European Union saw off one near-death experience yesterday, as Alexander van der Bellen - a Green running under independent colours - saw off Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate, taking 53 per cent to 47 per cent. 

"Turn of the tide: Europeans hail Austrian far-right defeat" is the Guardian's splash, while "Austria says NEIN to far-right" is the Metro's take.

It's a reminder that the relentless march of the far right is not as irresistible as the Le Pens of the world would like to think, and, for the left, a rare brightspot in a year of seemingly unbroken retreat, albeit by a margin that is too close for comfort. 

But on the other side of the Alps, things are not looking so great. Italian voters have rejected Italian PM Matteo Renzi's proposed constitutional reforms in a landslide, resulting in Renzi's resignation. (For a good primer on who Renzi is or rather was, Joji Sakurai wrote a very good one for us a while back, which you can read here)

"Europe in turmoil as Italian PM is defeated" is the Times splash. It has many worrying that Italy made be headed out of the Euro at worst and trigger another financial crisis in the Eurozone at best. Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth suggests that this will make the EU27 reluctant to put the squeeze on the City of London, which is still the Eurozone's clearing centre. Others, meanwhile, are saying it's all the latest in the populist, anti-establishment wave that is politics in 2016.

Are they right?

The reforms - which, among other things, would have ended the Italian system of "perfect bicameralism" whereby the upper house has as much power as the lower, replacing the former with a legislature drawn from the regions in a similar manner to Germany's - were something of a dog's dinner, and although the referendum was forced on Renzi as they were unable to secure a two-thirds majority among legislators, it was a grave error to turn the vote into a referendum on his government. (Bear in mind that Italy is a multi-party democracy where the left's best ever performance netted it 49.8 per cent of the vote, so he was on a hiding to nothing with that approach.)

If there is a commonality in the votes for Brexit, Trump, Hofer, it's in the revenge of the countryside and the small towns against the cities, with the proviso that in Austria, that vote was large enough to hold back the tide). This was very different. Particularly striking: young graduates, so often the losers at the ballot box and pretty much everywhere else post-financial crash, voted against the reforms yesterday.

Nor can a vote that was supported by Silvio Berlusconi, two of the three major parties, as well as Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed effectively on the demands of Italy's creditors, and the Economist be accurately described as a revolt against "the establishment" if that term is to have any meaningful use whatsoever.  

Of course, it could yet lead to a Brexit-style shock. Renzi's Democratic Party could collapse into in-fighting if his departure is permanent - though who knows, he might parlay his graceful concession speech and the likely chaos that is to follow into a triumphant second act - and although his party has a narrow lead in most polls, the Five Star Movement could win a snap election if one occurs.

That raises the nightmare prospect for Brussels of a Eurosceptic in power in a founder-member of the European Union and the single European currency. (That said, it should be noted that Five Star are opponents of the Euro, not of the European Union. The word "Eurosceptic" is perhaps making some anti-Europeans here in the UK overexcited.)

But as Open Europe noted in their very good primer on the referendum before the result that is still very much worth reading, that not only requires Five Star to win an election, but to hold and win not just a referendum on Italy's Euro membership, but to first win a referendum on changing the constitution to allow such a referendum in the first place. (And remember that support for the EU is up in the EU27 following the Brexit vote, too.)

The biggest risk is financial, not political. Renzi had acquired a quasi-mythical status in the eyes of foreign investors, meaning that his departure will make global finance nervous and could result in the rescue deal for Monte Paschi, the world's oldest bank, being mothballed. Although a economic crisis on the scale of the one Italy experienced in 2011 is unlikely, it's not impossible either. And what follows that may justify the comparisons to Trump rather more than Renzi's defeat yesterday.

THE FUTURE'S ORANGE, BUT NOT BRIGHT

Donald Trump, President-Elect of the world's largest superpower, has taken to Twitter to lambast the Chinese government, the world's second-largest superpower, and also a nation which holds both large numbers of nuclear weapons and vast amounts of American debt. 

The cause of the row? Trump became the first President or President-Elect to talk directly to Taiwan's president since 1979, which the Chinese government has taken umbrage to. (China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, not a separate nation.) 

I'LL SEE EU IN COURT

The government's appeal against the High Court's judgement that Parliament, not the Prime Minister, has the ultimate authority to trigger Article 50 begins today. The argument hinges on whether or not triggering Article 50 represents a loss of rights - if, as the High Court accepted it did, then only the legislature can vote to remove rights, rather than have it done through the royal prerogative. Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the case, tells the Guardianthat Supreme Court judges are being unfairly vilified in the right-wing press, who she blames for the death threats against her. 

TANGLED UP IN BLUE

The government is split over whether to continue paying into the European Union after Brexit to secure a decent standard of access to the single market, Oliver Wright reports in the Times. Boris Johnson used his tour of the Sunday shows to signal his opposition to the idea, which has been publicly backed by Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary. Liam Fox is said to oppose any continued payments into the EU. 

PRETTY HUGE DECEPTION

Ukip's new leader, Paul Nuttall, has denied that he claimed to have a PhD from Liverpool Hope University, blaming the claim on a LinkedIn page set up by parties unknown. Andrew Marr also confronted Nuttall with past comments of him calling for the privatization of the NHS in 2011.

ON THE CASEY

Louise Casey, the government's integration tsar, has a new report out in which she says that ethnic segregation in the UK is increasing, and criticizes the government for not doing enough to tackle the problem. The big items: the condition of women in ethnic minority communities, a lack of English language lessons, and recommended an oath of allegiance for all public servants. It's the latter that has the Mail all excited: "Swear oath to live in Britain" is their splash. Anushka Asthana has the full details in the Guardian.

SPECIALIST IN FAILURE (TO PAY TAXES?)

Commons PAC chair Meg Hillier has called for football coach Jose Mourinho to be investigated over reports that he has moved millions offshore to avoid paying tax. (If 1-1 draws are tax deductible, that would explain a great deal.) 

SOUNDS UNNERVINGLY LIKE HOME

Theresa May has told the Radio Times what her Christmas is like: Midnight Mass, sleep, a church service, then lunch (goose) and Doctor Who. She has opened up on the difficulties of growing up in a vicarage (among other things, not getting to open your presents for aaages). 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It's beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here's Anna's top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

MUST READS

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on how to respond to Trump

Labour has a horrible dilemma on Brexit, I say

Michael Chessum on why aping Ukip on Brexit is the path to Labour defeat

Jason on how politics makes us human

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.