The microrobot is made of 98 percent stem cells and 2 percent magnetic particles so that it is less likely to be rejected by the human body, researchers say.
The soft microrobot measures between 100 and 500 micrometers in radius, which is similar to the thickness of hair. It can squeeze and go through tiny tracts smaller than one millimeter by self-alternating its shape while navigating the body.
Philip Chiu Wai-yan, director of the Chow Yuk Ho Technology Centre for Innovative Medicine and CUHK Jockey Club Minimally Invasive Surgical Skills Centre, said the endoscopes used currently are between nine and 10mm wide and cannot access ducts that are too tiny and windy.
"We hope that by using this technology, we can identify early abnormalities in tiny tracts like the bile duct, pancreatic duct, bronchioles and urethra and provide more effective and efficient treatment accordingly," he said.
Chiu added the tiny robots can travel a meter in eight minutes.
The microrobots will be used together with an endoscopy-assisted magnetic actuation with a dual imaging system. An endoscope will act as an "express lane" to deploy the microrobots at the entrance of the ducts. The robot will then move according to magnetic navigation to the target location and be monitored through ultrasound imaging.
By combining endoscopes, magnetic navigation and microrobots, this new technology can substantially extend the existing treatment area.
"With the magnetic navigation, the biohybrid microrobots can offer diagnostic and therapeutic opportunities that we have never seen before. It seems to be safe and the potential for clinical application is huge," said Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, CUHK emeritus professor of medicine.
The team plans to conduct animal experiments on pigs in the coming one to two years and hopes that the technology can be ready for clinical application in three to five years' time. It is also looking into the possibility of having the microrobots carry drugs, which may better treat cancer cells than the existing targeted therapy.
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