Free-swimming microbots for medical applications

Planck researchers in Stuttgart has built a tiny submarine, shown in the drawing on the right. Small magnets, shown here ... [more] © Photo: Alejandro Posada / MPI for Intelligent Systems
Planck researchers in Stuttgart has built a tiny submarine, shown in the drawing on the right. Small magnets, shown here …
via Alejandro Posada / MPI for Intelligent Systems

Micro- and nano-swimmers can be propelled through media similar to bodily fluids

Micro- or even nano-robots could someday perform medical tasks in the human body. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart have now taken a first step towards this goal. They have succeeded in constructing swimming bodies that simultaneously meet two requirements: they are small enough to be used in bodily fluids or even individual cells, and they are able to navigate through complex biological fluids.

In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a submarine complete with crew is shrunk in size so that it can navigate through the human body, enabling the crew to perform surgery in the brain. This scenario remains in the realm of science fiction, and transporting a surgical team to a disease site will certainly remain fiction. Nevertheless, tiny submarines that could navigate through the body could be of great benefit: they could deliver drugs precisely to a target location, a point on the retina for instance. And they could make it possible to carry out gene therapy in a specific cell.

If things go according to Peer Fischer, leader of the Micro, Nano and Molecular Systems Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, then doctors will in the foreseeable future call upon micro- or even nano-robots to carry out such tasks. The little helpers would accurately home-in on targets in the body, eliminating the need for more major surgery, or by making some procedures minimally invasive.

A microscopic scallop could not swim in water

However, there are two fundamental challenges to realize these goals. Obviously, such vehicles must be small enough to be injected into the eyeball, for example, with a syringe. Secondly, once introduced into the body, they must be able to move through bodily fluids and tissue. On both fronts, the research group led by Peer Fischer has now made significant progress.

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