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These tiny nickel-coated robots may save your life

February 15, 2017

These nickel-coated microbots have the potential to save lives one day – possibly even yours or someone you love – by delivering drugs through the bloodstream Photo: Sangwon Kim, Famin Qiu, Samhwan Kim, Ali Ghanbari, Cheil Moon, Li Zhang, Bradley J. Nelson, Hongsoo Choi, Magnetic Microrobots: Fabrication and characterization of magnetic microbots for three-dimensional cell culture and targeted transportation. Advanced materials 2013, 41, page 5829. Copyright Wiley-Vch Verlag Gmbh & Co. Kgaa. (Reproduced with permission.)

Most of us can probably imagine a future with robots: Robots cleaning our houses, walking our dogs perhaps, maybe even making dinner for us after a hard day of work.  (Nice, isn’t it?).

Now, take that robot and blast it with a laser beam from the shrinking machine in the film, Honey I Shrunk the Kids,  to the size of a human cell – approximately  0.1mm long by 0.04 mm wide.  Science fiction, you say? Well, the film is, the tiny robot however, is not.

Moreover, these nickel-coated microbots, as they are called, may be minuscule in size but they have a very big job indeed.  They have the potential to save lives one day – possibly even yours or someone you love – by delivering drugs through the bloodstream.  After being injected into the body, they are guided wirelessly with an electromagnetic field. To enable wireless control, parts of the microbot are coated with a thin layer of nickel which is ferro-magnetic.

… We may be able to cure strokes without an operation.

Prof. Li Zhang of the Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is the lead in a team of researchers who work in co-operation with Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea and ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. Zhang and his team proved in laboratory tests that the microbots could be directed with minute accuracy by an external magnetic field. Additional laboratory testing where human kidney cells were cultivated with the microbots, showed that the cells grew and even interacted with the microbots –  a sign that these microbots are compatible with our cells.

Precise delivery of the drugs to specific parts of the human body offers alternatives to invasive treatments, especially for brain and eye diseases like stroke and retinal degeneration.

“If we can inject thousands of these microbots carrying drugs into the human body in-between vertebral columns, and direct them to the affected area in the brain, we may be able to cure strokes without an operation,” said Zhang.

There are still challenges ahead. Nuclear and magnetic resonance devices are commonly used to track microbots, but the resolution of these devices have not been high enough to track the new model. The university is testing the microbot on rabbits and mice, but Zhang said it might take decades until the technology is ready to be tested on humans. Being able to guide the microbot to the exact location knowing exactly where it is at any moment is essential, and the nickel coating would enable that to happen.


This article was reprinted and edited for length, flow, tone and voice with permission from the Nickel Institute.      

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