Microrobots that can deliver drugs to specific spots inside the body while being monitored and controlled from outside the body have been developed that also can treat tumors in the digestive tract.

An artist’s illustration of microrobots inside the gut. (Caltech)

The microrobots consist of microscopic spheres of magnesium metal coated with thin layers of gold and parylene, a polymer that resists digestion. The layers leave a circular portion of the sphere uncovered — the uncovered portion of the magnesium reacts with the fluids in the digestive tract, generating small bubbles. The stream of bubbles acts like a jet and propels the sphere forward until it collides with nearby tissue.

On their own, magnesium spherical microrobots are interesting but they are not especially useful. To turn them from a novelty into a vehicle for delivering medication, modifications were made that include a layer of medication sandwiched between an individual microsphere and its parylene coat. Then, to protect the microrobots from the harsh environment of the stomach, they are enveloped in microcapsules made of paraffin wax.

At this stage, the spheres are capable of carrying drugs but still lack the crucial ability to deliver them to a desired location. For that, photoacoustic computed tomography (PACT) — a technique that uses pulses of infrared laser light — was used. The infrared laser light diffuses through tissues and is absorbed by oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells, causing the molecules to vibrate ultrasonically. Those ultrasonic vibrations are picked up by sensors pressed against the skin. The data from those sensors is used to create images of the internal structures of the body.

Previously, variations of PACT were shown to be useful to identify breast tumors or even individual cancer cells. With respect to the microrobots, the technique has two jobs — the first is imaging. By using PACT, the researchers can find tumors in the digestive tract and also track the location of the microrobots, which show up strongly in the PACT images. Once the microrobots arrive in the vicinity of the tumor, a high-power, continuous-wave, near-infrared laser beam is used to activate them. Because the microrobots absorb the infrared light so strongly, they briefly heat up, melting the wax capsule surrounding them and exposing them to digestive fluids. At that point, the microrobots’ bubble jets activate, and the microrobots begin swarming. The jets are not steerable, so the microrobots will not all hit the targeted area, but many will. When they do, they stick to the surface and begin releasing their medication payload.

Tests demonstrated that the concept can reach the diseased area and the microrobots activated. The next step is to develop variations of the microrobots that can operate in other parts of the body and with different types of propulsion systems.

For more information, contact Emily Velasco at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 626-395-6487.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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