A start-up in California, Bionaut Labs has found a way to treat disorders by sending tiny robots deep into your brain using magnets.
Sending tiny robots deep within the human skull to treat brain diseases has long been science fiction, but according to a California start-up, it could soon become reality.
Bionaut Labs expects to begin human clinical trials for its tiny injectable robots, which can be carefully steered through the brain using magnets within two years.
“The idea of the micro robot came about way before I was born,” stated Michael Shpigelmacher, co-founder and CEO.
“One of the most famous examples is a book by Isaac Asimov and a film called ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ where a crew of scientists goes inside a miniaturized spaceship into the brain, to treat a blood clot.”
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Micro-robot technology “that used to be science fiction in the 1950s and 60s” is now “science fact,” according to Shpigelmacher, much as cellphones today contain incredibly powerful components smaller than a grain of rice.
During a tour of his company’s research and development lab in Los Angeles, the 53-year-old scientist told AFP, “We want to take that old idea and turn it into reality.”
Working with Germany’s famed Max Planck research institutes, Bionaut Labs chose magnetic energy over optical or ultrasonic means to propel the robots because it is not harmful to the human body.
Magnetic coils positioned outside the patient’s skull are connected to a computer that can remotely and delicately navigate the micro-robot into the damaged area of the brain before withdrawing it the same way.
Unlike an MRI, the entire system is portable and utilises 10 to 100 times less electricity.
The robot, which is a metal cylinder just a few millimetres long and shaped like a small bullet, follows a pre-programmed trajectory through a gel-filled container that replicates the density of the human brain in a simulation observed by AFP.
When the robot gets close enough to a pouch filled with blue liquid, it accelerates like a rocket and pierces the sack with its pointed end, allowing liquid to gush out.
When clinical trials begin in two years, the inventors want to use the robot to penetrate fluid-filled cysts in the brain.
The procedure could be used to cure Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a rare brain abnormality that affects children, if it is successful.
Cysts the size of a golf ball can form in patients of this congenital ailment, swelling and increasing pressure on the brain, initiating a slew of dangerous neurological conditions.
Bionaut Labs has already tested its robots on large animals like sheep and pigs, and according to Shpigelmacher, “the data shows that the technology is safe for us.”
If approved, the robots could provide significant advantages over currently available treatments for brain disorders.
“Today, most brain surgery and brain intervention is limited to straight lines — if you don’t have a straight line to the target, you’re stuck, you’re not going to get there,” said Shpigelmacher.
Micro-robotic tech “allows you to reach targets you were not able to reach, and reaching them repeatedly in the safest trajectory possible,” he added.
Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Bionaut Labs clearance to begin clinical tests for Dandy-Walker Syndrome and malignant gliomas, which are cancerous brain tumours that are generally perceived inoperable.
The micro-robots will be used to inject anti-cancer medications directly into brain tumours in a “surgical strike” in the latter situation.
According to Shpigelmacher, current therapy procedures include hammering the entire body with medications, which can result in severe side effects and a loss of efficiency.
While within the brain, the micro-robots can also take measurements and gather tissue samples.
Bionaut Labs, which employs about 30 people, is in talks with potential partners to utilise their technology to treat other brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and strokes.
“To the best of my knowledge, we are the first commercial effort” to design a product of this type with “a clear path to the clinic trials,” said Shpigelmacher.
“But I don’t think that we will be the only one… This area is heating up.”