A machine made of gold? Fancy! But though this minuscule robot may be made of finer things, its purpose is serious. That is to clear bacterial infections directly from a patient’s blood by using precisely those same gold nanowires, which have been coated with platelets and red blood cells, to do the work. And what ingenious work it is, if I may say so. If antibacterial nanobots were to gain traction in the field of medicine, then we don’t have to rely so much on antibiotics to clear our bodies of infections. These broad-spectrum drugs often leave our bodies resistant to future iterations of the same bacteria, becoming less effective and contributing to the rise of superbugs or drug-resistant bacteria.
Nanorobots, however, can do the same work as an antibacterial drug without the possibility of drug resistance. It works by mimicking a bacterium and its toxin’s target, then trapping the bacteria in the nanowire mesh when it comes close. And because it is a robot, it can be controlled and directed precisely through the body to treat localized infections. Paired with targeted ultrasound, it also can speed up the process of clearing an infection, making it an excellent candidate for treating bacterial infections.
Bigger isn’t always better, at least not when it comes to robots in surgery. Most of the robots we encounter in surgery looks like big hulking pieces of machinery or sleek mechanical arms. However, a branch of robotics explores surgical equipment in the opposite direction, making a robot so small as to virtually eliminate the need for opening up the body through an incision. Instead, microbots, which could be as small as a human cell, can be deployed into the human body and perform surgeries from within! How cool is that?
While scientists have been working on microbots for years, the technology is yet to become mainstream. Because of their size, microbots can be challenging to control and maneuver, especially when used in delicate surgeries. As such, they are still in the testing phase. Researchers are figuring out better ways to deploy microbots as well as make them more pliable and responsive as a tool in the hands of experienced surgeons. But once they do become a legitimate surgical tool, patients can look forward to a faster, less painful recovery and an ideal healing process.
Nanoparticles, robotic biopsies with an MRI, nanodevices with ‘treatment payloads’ — oh my! The potential for robotics applications in medicine is so far-reaching you’d have to get in line. There are plenty of exciting ideas in the realm of robotics in medicine. People just need time to flesh them all out. There is no shortage of scientific minds willing to take on these challenges. For example, a team of mechanical and robotics engineers is working on compact, high-precision robots that can operate within the bore of an MRI scanner. Their goal is to improve the accuracy of prostate biopsies. However, they face a challenge in making a robot that works despite magnets in the MRI.
Other potential game-changing robotics research is on nanoparticles and nanodevices that are even smaller than microbots. This experiment in size aims to develop a small robot that can pass through the blood-brain barrier, allowing them to carry payloads to even more precise locations that are unreachable by current microbot or nanobot technology. Considering all this, the future is bright for robotics in medicine. However, even more importantly, these robots show us not just the possibility of a better future. They also reveal the unshakeable spirit of human innovation that drives us to search for answers continually. We seek to improve everything, especially healthcare, just a little bit.