Spermbots are the latest tools designed to assist doctors in diagnosing ailments. The creations are half-biological, half-mechanical miniature probes designed by engineers from the University of Illinois.
The spermbots, as they’ve been dubbed, are miniature probes that resemble sperm and can swim through the fluids in the human body by using their long tails, or flagella, to propel themselves forward. The engineers from the University of Illinois recently published a study about their creations in the January 17 Nature Communications journal.
According to mechanical science and engineering professor Taher Saif from the University of Illinois, the spermbots were developed to explore and observe areas within the human body where traditional probes used in the past have been unable to go.
The spermbots, Saif added, are fairly simple to make, as they require only a head and a wire for a tail. The bodies of the sperm-bots are made from a flexible polymer. Near the junction where the head and tail meet, are embedded heart cells that have been cultured under laboratory conditions.
The heart cells first align themselves with each other, then they synchronize themselves and beat as one. Their beats create waves that move all the way to the tails of the sperm-bots, and serve to move the miniature devices forward.
Though the researchers at the University of Illinois don’t yet know exactly how the cells manage to work together and communicate with one another, they are able to do so, and will be a great benefit to medical science and the diagnosing of various ailments.
Saif and his team also have designed and created spermbots with two tails. These probes can swim even faster as they navigate through the human body. Future versions of these sperm-bots, according to Saif and his fellow researchers, could be designed to sense light, detect certain chemicals, or journey towards a specific areas of the human body for medical purposes such as delivering drugs where they’re most needed.
The National Science Foundation-funded Science and Technology Center called Emergent Behaviors in Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) provided the funding necessary to create the living biological multi-cellular machines.
Among the other people on Saif’s team are Sandeep V. Anand and Brian J. Williams, also of the University of Illinois, and Jagannathan Rajagopalan of Arizona State University.
The creation of the sperm-bots, according to Saif, is just the beginning. The goal of the long-term effort is to see if scientists can create structures or miniature bio-hybrid machines seeded with stem cells capable of differentiating into smart structures. They could then be used to target cancer, perform surgery, or deliver drugs.
EBICS director Roger Kaam, a professor of biological and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stated that the sperm-bots demonstrate that computer modeling can be used “in conjunction with biological design to optimize performance, or design entirely different types of swimming bio-bots.”
The sperm-bots, aka “Bio-Bots,” have been built with a minimum amount of moving parts. The aim was to make them as simply as possible, and to be as durable as possible, considering their miniature size.
Other possible uses of the sperm-bots are to utilize them in detecting tumors, toxins, and cancer cells within humans. Their small size makes the sperm-bots far less intrusive then traditional surgery, so their use will bring less damage to the people who they are designed to help. Their use might soon become as common as the use of blood pressure cuffs or stethoscopes, or at least as common as the use of CAT scans, in diagnosing medical problems.
Written by: Douglas Cobb