A bio-bot that swims with heart cells debuted today in a news release from the University of Illinois. The microscopic organism is designed to move about in viscous environments such as the interior of the human body, researchers hope that one day it will be able to target cancer cells or harmful toxins in the body and remove them without the damage associated with traditional surgeries. Engineers were able to create a device with a minimum amount of moving parts, the bio-bot is constructed of a flexible polymer and consists of no more than a section and long tail section. Heart cells are then grown and coaxed to attach to the polymer frame. Although the cells beat randomly at first, they eventually learn to synchronize and position themselves to swim efficiently. The manner in which this is done is not yet completely understood.
Professor Taher Saif led the research team responsible for the bio-bot that swims with heart cells debuted today. He has high hopes for the devices in the near future. Citing the difficulty of getting a look into the notoriously tightly packed human body, Said is excited by the breakthrough, citing that it will allow internal diagnostics that do little to no harm to the patient, and provide more accurate diagnoses than poking or prodding. During development the phase his team also built a two tailed version of the robot that was able to swim about twice as fast as the single tailed version, although it was slightly larger.
Although the combination of synthetic and organic materials is somewhat new in application, the idea has been around for some time, with small walking bio-bots built in 2012 that use the same theory of contracting and relaxing heart cells to create movement. The simplicity of these first models is necessary as the technology is further developed, but the future likely holds more complex and capable machines created with a combination of organic and synthetic materials. With the limited nature of materials firmly realized by the world at large, an understanding of how to get naturally occurring cells and enzymes to perform specific tasks is quickly becoming a crucial area of research.
Similar to human sperm cells, the bio-bot propels itself forward by a wave propagation along its tail provided by the contracting cardiomyocytes. As the cells contract the tail is pulled in one direction, and as they relax it snaps back to its original position, sending a flick of motion along the length of the tail and pushing the bio-bot forward. Now that the challenge of creating a system small enough to travel inside the human body has been conquered, the next step will be figuring out how to enable the swimmers to detect, seek, and remove harmful cells or fluids in the body.
Now that a bio-bot that swims with heart cells debuted, further research into the field is expected, with walking bots expected to be perfected and utilized in a similar time frame to swimmers. Although human trials are not currently running, the bio-bots have been made to swim in petri dishes and the method of coaxing cells to attach to the polymer frame has been perfected.
By Daniel O’Brien