Researchers treat brain tumors using ‘neutrobots’ in animal trials

A team of scientists in China used microscopic robots to deliver drugs to the tissues of the affected animals

By Faisal Khan | 30 March 2021

A neutrobot nestled up against a glioma tumor in a mouse brain. Image Credit: Zhang et al., Sci Robot. 6, eaaz9519 (2021)

It was last summer that I wrote about how researchers, taking inspiration from the Japanese art of Origami, created agile micro machines to be used in diverse fields like medical equipment and infrastructure sensing. I am a huge fan of the usefulness of technology in the healthcare field and how it can change our lives for the better – by delivering life-saving drugs via self-propelled microbots. This is where today’s breakthrough research fits in.

A team of Chinese researchers from the Harbin Institute for Technology has developed microscopic robots which have the ability to deliver drugs to the tissues, to treat brain tumors. And the animal trials conducted on mice have been largely successful. This endeavor is the continuation of their previous research, where they created liquid-coated nanorobots that could be remotely propelled through the jelly-like fluid of the eye.

The current process entailed coating the microbots with E. coli, which enabled them to jump from the mice’s bloodstream into their brains. Coating them with this bacteria basically tricked the rodents’ immune systems into attacking them, thus absorbing the robots and the cancer-fighting drugs in the process. Dubber as ‘neutrobots’, they penetrate the casing of neutrophils – a type of white blood cell.

“The neutrobots are not exclusively designed for the treatment of glioma… [they are] a platform for active delivery for the therapy of various brain diseases such as cerebral thrombosis, apoplexy, and epilepsy.”

Zhiguang Wu, Lead Author

Researchers used a rotating magnetic field to direct the movements of these neutrobots remotely. Microscopically speaking, they could maneuver the movements of these hybrid bio-bots at about 1% the width of a hair. The resulting paths resembled the tracks of a snake. However, the biggest challenge the scientists faced was the non-receptive nature of white blood cells towards the tiny bots.

This was addressed by coating the bots in bits of E. coli membrane, which the white blood cells recognized as an external predator and latched on to them to neutralize the latter. The neutrobots then acting as Trojan horses from within the cells, moved towards the brain – finally, delivering the drug directly to the targeted tumors.

It took the team eight years to figure out how to send out microscopic robot swarms from the rodent’s bloodstream in their tails, where the bots were injected, to their brains, where gliomas – tumors that emerge from the brain’s glial cells resided. The team believes that many more breakthroughs like this are on the horizon and more importantly, they could have multiple applications in the future.

They also believe the process can be tweaked to treat a variety of brain conditions, apart from the one described above. The next step involves conducting human trials to see whether the same results can be replicated. At the same time, they will be looking to devise a process by which they can see the movements of the microbots in real-time to better understand and direct the process.

Whatever the case, humans are pushing the boundaries of robotics research and we might bear its fruit, in the not-so-distant future.

Complete Research was published in the Journal of Science Robotics.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Faisal Khan is a prolific Canada-based tech blogger and influencer. He is the founder and editor of the Technicity publication which focuses on technical, scientific and financial knowledge sharing. Follow him on Twitter @fklivestolearn.

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