Jan 5, 2017 | By Benedict
Samuel Sia, a professor of biomedical engineering at New York City’s Columbia University, has developed a 3D printed biobot that can be implanted in the body to release controlled doses of drugs. The amazing device can be controlled from outside the body using only magnets.
For patients who have been diagnosed with cancer, treatment options are often few and far between, and in many serious cases, starting an intense course of chemotherapy becomes a necessity rather than a choice. But despite being a powerful weapon against cancer, chemotherapy takes its toll on the body in a number of ways: chronic pain, nausea, fatigue, hair loss, and the chance of infertility are just some of the adverse effects that chemotherapy can present. Fortunately, scientists are working hard to develop more effective ways of delivering chemotherapy drugs, including a new 3D printing method that involves fabricating squishy, “clockwork” micromachines that deliver precise drug doses from within the body.
These exciting new micromachines, or “biobots,” have been developed at the laboratory of Samuel Sia, a professor of biomedical engineering at New York City’s Columbia University. Sia and his research team recently published their findings in Science Robotics, where they explain how they have developed “a fast manufacturing method that can produce features in biocompatible materials down to tens of micrometers in scale, with intricate and composite patterns in each layer.” With this manufacturing method, the scientists have been able to create tiny devices that can release drugs into the body via magnetic signals.
Going into the laboratory with the goal of creating these drug-dispensing micromachines, the Columbia biomedical engineers first needed to develop a special way of creating that machine. For this, they turned to 3D printing, developing a one-off machine that can deposit layers of hydrogel to form solid, rubbery shapes.
Next came the challenge of creating the tiny devices themselves. For this part, the researchers could use a tried and tested mechanism to operate their biobots: clockwork. Amazingly, the hydrogel-based micromachines really do function like a timepiece—each squishy device is a kind of Geneva drive, a gear mechanism capable of regular rotation, and clicks forward when an external magnet is directed at it. The “gear” of the device is just a squishy component containing iron nanoparticles, and each click causes one of six chambers to line up with a hole and dispense medicine through it.
Creating these 3D printed biobots was a challenge for Sia’s team for several reasons. For starters, the tiny devices needed to be soft and flexible enough to be compatible with the human body. But they also needed to be robust enough to withstand the rough and tumble of the body’s insides: “If your material is collapsing like jello, it’s hard to make robots out of it,” Sia told IEEE Spectrum. “It has to be stiff enough to work like a tiny implantable machine.”
With tiny devices like these, doctors could someday deliver drugs such as chemotherapy treatments with a much higher level of precision—potentially reducing some of the adverse effects of the powerful drugs. They could also be used to regulate hormones or perform other important tasks from within the body. Importantly, Sia and his team have already tested out the 3D printed robotic devices on mice, and with great success. (A device implanted in a mouse can be seen in the image below.)
The researchers implanted the biobots into a number of mice with bone cancer, releasing controlled doses of a chemotherapy drug through the 3D printed devices. Simultaneously, other mice suffering from bone cancer were given the same drug through conventional methods. According to the researchers, tumors grew slower, more tumor cells died off, and fewer healthy cells were damaged in the mice fitted with the 3D printed biobots.
The squishy 3D printed devices therefore represent a massive opportunity for medical professionals, potentially serving as a new way to deliver critical treatments to the body. First, however, Sia’s team (or another group of researchers) might need to find a more precise way to control the device. Although the magnetic system currently in place works a charm in the laboratory, it remains possible that a powerful magnet from another source might accidentally trigger the devices within the body, releasing drugs at the wrong time and in the wrong dosage.
For now, Sia will continue to look for other ways in which the 3D printed micromachines can be used to benefit patients. “I’m confident that we’ll find something useful,” he said.
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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