Tiny Robots Carry Stem Cells Through a Mouse

Using this technique, microrobots could deliver stem cells to hard-to-reach places

2 min read
Illustration of experimental setup for magnetic manipulation of microrobots carrying stem cells through a rat brain.
This illustration shows how microrobots could move stem cells in the body of a mouse. The panel on the far right shows a helical robot, controlled by external magnetic fields, as it travels through a blood vessel in the mouse's face.
Images: DGIST-ETH Microrobotics Research Center

Engineers have built microrobots to perform all sorts of tasks in the body, and can now add to that list another key skill: delivering stem cells. In a paper published today in Science Robotics, researchers describe propelling a magnetically-controlled, stem-cell-carrying bot through a live mouse. 

Under a rotating magnetic field, the microrobots moved with rolling and corkscrew-style locomotion. The researchers, led by Hongsoo Choi and his team at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology (DGIST), in South Korea, also demonstrated their bot’s moves in slices of mouse brain, in blood vessels isolated from rat brains, and in a multi-organ-on-a chip. 

The invention provides an alternative way to deliver stem cells, which are increasingly important in medicine. Such cells can be coaxed into becoming nearly any kind of cell, making them great candidates for treating neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

But delivering stem cells typically requires an injection with a needle, which lowers the survival rate of the stem cells, and limits their reach in the body. Microrobots, however, have the potential to deliver stem cells to precise, hard-to-reach areas, with less damage to surrounding tissue, and better survival rates, says Jin-young Kim, a principle investigator at DGIST-ETH Microrobotics Research Center, and an author on the paper. 

The virtues of microrobots have inspired several research groups to propose and test different designs in simple conditions, such as microfluidic channels and other static environments. A group out of Hong Kong last year described a burr-shaped bot that carried cells through live, transparent zebrafish

The new research presents a magnetically-actuated microrobot that successfully carried stem cells through a live mouse. In additional experiments, the cells, which had differentiated into brain cells such as astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and neurons, transferred to microtissues on the multi-organ-on-a-chip. Taken together, the proof-of-concept experiments demonstrate the potential for microrobots to be used in human stem cell therapy, says Kim.  

The team fabricated the robots with 3D laser lithography, and designed them in two shapes: spherical and helical. Using a rotating magnetic field, the scientists navigated the spherical-shaped bots with a rolling motion, and the helical bots with a corkscrew motion. These styles of locomotion proved more efficient than that from a simple pulling force, and were more suitable for use in biological fluids, the scientists reported. 

The big challenge in navigating microbots in a live animal (or human body) is being able to see them in real time. Imaging with fMRI doesn’t work, because the magnetic fields interfere with the system. “To precisely control microbots in vivo, it is important to actually see them as they move,” the authors wrote in their paper. 

That wasn’t possible during experiments in a live mouse, so the researchers had to check the location of the microrobots before and after the experiments using an optical tomography system called IVIS. They also had to resort to using a pulling force with a permanent magnet to navigate the microrobots inside the mouse, due to the limitations of the IVIS system. 

Kim says he and his colleagues are developing imaging systems that will enable them to view in real time the locomotion of their microrobots in live animals.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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