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Science to Save the World – MANiAC Robots

This idea, long a staple of science fiction, is finally becoming reality.

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This episode of Lifespan.io’s general science show, Science to Save the World, is about how tiny robots might be able to deliver medication to where it is needed.

Script

Central nervous system diseases are notoriously difficult to treat.

Drugs used orally or intravenously to treat cancers or neurologic diseases may have unintended consequences in other parts of the body and nervous system. Could tiny robots inside your body be a solution? MANiACs, or Magnetically Aligned Nanorods in Alginate Capsules, are miniscule robots that actually travel through the body to deliver drugs and medication directly to where it’s needed.

The technology of the MANiACs is similar to the idea of the 1966 science-fiction film, ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ In the film, a group of scientists shrink a submarine and themselves in order to journey into the brain of a patient. They use a laser gun to battle a blood clot in order to save the man’s life. While miniaturizing ray technology is still very much science fiction, researchers have created a variety of micro- or millirobots (or possibly nanorobots) that might help achieve this seemingly impossible mission.

However, directing the robots’ activity while they travel through tissues in the body is a big challenge, and so far, few researchers have put their tumbling robots to the test by seeing how they manage traveling over actual tissues. Magnetic fields are a particularly promising method of controlling objects within the body since they are unaffected by tissues and are generally quite safe.

This is the driving force behind MANiACs, tiny soft robots, with magnetic nanorods enclosed in a soft spherical shell. These nanorods should allow them to safely tumble through the body in response to an external magnetic field with the objective of directing them to a medication delivery target location.

A new study published in Frontiers in Robotics and AI is the first to look at how such tiny robots may function as drug delivery vehicles in brain tissue. The researchers put the robots through their paces. They sought to test the MANiAC robots in circumstances similar to those found in the human body. These include navigating the nervous system’s tortuous structure, with its flowing cerebrospinal fluid and steep inclines.

Using rat brains and mouse spinal cords, they further tested the robots’ capacity to travel along tissues. They also assessed targeted medication delivery using dye as a drug substitute. Under magnetic stimulation, the MANiACs ascended slopes as steep as 45 degrees and went upstream against a fluid flow comparable to that found in the nervous system.

The researchers were able to precisely move dye-loaded MANiACs over the surface of the rat brain tissues and successfully deposit the dye in specific sites. They were even able to re-dose many areas in order to enhance the amount of ‘drug’ delivered to that area.

The ability to return and re-dose areas that got an inadequate dose during the initial treatment is particularly significant. These are preliminary and very experimental results. But the researchers believe they have provided compelling evidence that tiny, soft, capsule-based microrobots have the potential for regulated local drug delivery in brain diseases.

Would you let a tiny MANiAC travel around inside your body to treat you with drugs? Sound off in the comments – what do you think of this idea?

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