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Using Micro-Submarines to Deliver Treatment

Science fiction often seems to make accurate predictions about our future. From the 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage” up to today, inserting micro-sized robots into a human body has been a goal of many bio-engineers.

Dr. Kang Liang from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, has now taken a step in this direction, recently announcing the next wave of micrometer-sized submarines. When operational, these submarines will be small enough to enter capillaries in the human body without the need for external navigation.

We already know that micro-motors use different external driving forces – such as light, heat, or magnetic fields – to actively navigate to a specific location. In this research, we designed micro-motors that no longer rely on external manipulation to navigate to a specific location. Instead, they take advantage of variations in biological environments to automatically navigate themselves.

Dr. Kang Liang, Press Release from the UNSW Newsroom

Nanotechnology has made radical progress since IBM scientists first demonstrated the scanning tunneling microscope in the 1980s. Global initiatives have led to a proliferation of activity, particularly in the US, Japan, and Australia.

Dr. Liang’s announcement is the latest development in the aim to create and develop nanotechnology with practical medical applications. The micrometer submarines are the most recent step towards replacing high-risk surgical procedures with safer and more effective methods of treatment.

How Do They Work?

Historically micro-motors only have a diameter of 1 millimeter. One motor has two phases operating simultaneously with 4 coils and a 2-pole magnet. They are often used in intravascular imaging, and the motor is usually placed on the tip of a catheter before insertion into the body.

In all cases, the motors require external human manipulation to function correctly. Liang’s design removes the need for human control.

Most micro-motors travel in a two-dimensional fashion. But in this work, we designed a vertical direction mechanism. We combined these two concepts to come up with a design of autonomous micro-motors that move in a 3D fashion. This will enable their ultimate use as smart drug deliveries in the future.

Dr. Kang Liang, Press Release from the UNSW Newsroom

The medical benefits of this design are immediately apparent. Instead of a patient having to undergo complex micro-surgery, a doctor can prescribe a course of drugs. Within each pill lies a million micro-submarines filled with drug molecules. Once the pills hit the gastrointestinal fluid, the submarines are released and are then free to navigate to the area of the body where treatment is needed.

This latest innovation has the potential to change the way we manage previously untreatable forms of cancer.

The drug-loaded particles can then be internalized by the cells at the site of the cancer. Once inside the cells, they will be degraded, causing the release of the drugs to fight the cancer in a very targeted and efficient way.

Dr. Kang Liang, Press Release from the UNSW Newsroom

What are the Submarines Made of?

According to Dr. Liang, each submarine is made from composite metal-organic framework (MOF) micro-motor systems, containing the bioactive enzyme Catalase, as the engine for gas bubble generation. Catalases are some of the most efficient antioxidant enzymes found in our cells as they are able to decompose millions of hydrogen peroxide molecules every second.

These robots are still in the proof of concept phase, so current surgical practice and drug use is not expected to change quickly. But Dr. Liang and his team have plans to apply their findings to other types of nanoparticles to help them progress their work.

What does this mean for the future of micro-surgery? If Dr. Liang’s discovery continues to gain support, funding, and verification, then we may see a radical change to the way we treat serious diseases.

While a tiny submarine traveling around inside our bodies is not yet a reality, it won’t be long before robots begin making their own voyages to treat areas surgery cannot.

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  • University of New South Wales, Australia
  • Popular Mechanics
  • Kinetron
John Allen

Written by

John Allen

John is an award-winning writer and speaker. He holds a BA Hons. in Theological Studies from the University of Exeter as well as diplomas from the London School of Journalism and the Open University. John has worked in both the healthcare and digital sectors researching and writing about the latest developments in life sciences, robotics, space exploration, and nanotechnology.


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