Researchers use biomaterials to create implantable microrobots

Researchers from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a new method of creating microscale-sized machines from biomaterials that can be safely implanted into the body, according to a university press release.

Sam Sia, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering and leader of the research team, has called the technique, which uses hydrogels to stack the soft material in layers to create 3-D, free-moving parts, “implantable microelectromechanical systems (iMEMS).”

“Overall, our iMEMS platform enables development of biocompatible implantable microdevices with a wide range of intricate moving components that can be wirelessly controlled on demand and solves issues of device powering and biocompatibility,” Sia said in a press release. “We are really excited about this because we have been able to connect the world of biomaterials with that of complex, elaborate medical devices. Our platform has a large number of potential applications, including the drug delivery system demonstrated in our paper which is linked to providing tailored drug doses for precision medicine.”

The researchers, who published their findings in Science Robotics, developed the technique by “exploiting the unique mechanical properties of hydrogels,” the press release noted. By creating a locking mechanism for the free movement of parts — with functions such as valves, manifolds, rotors, pumps and drug delivery — the researchers could control the biomaterials after implantation without a sustained power supply, such as a battery.

According to the press release, the researchers tested the materials in a bone cancer model in mice and found the release of doxorubicin from the device during the course of 10 days showed high treatment efficacy and low toxicity, at one-tenth of the standard systemic chemotherapy dose.

Sia said the iMEMS technique addresses several questions regarding the feasibility of building biocompatible microscale-sized machines and robots, including how to power the devices without a battery and how to make moveable components that are not silicon.

“These microscale components can be used for microelectromechanical systems, for larger devices ranging from drug delivery to catheters to cardiac pacemakers, and soft robotics,” Sia said. “People are already making replacement tissues and now we can make small implantable devices, sensors or robots that we can talk to wirelessly. Our iMEMS system could bring the field a step closer in developing soft, miniaturized robots that can safely interact with humans and other living systems.”


Chin SY, et al. Sci Robotics. 2017; doi:10.1126/scirobotics.aah6451.  


The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.

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