CUHK 'transformer robot' offers hope for stroke patients

Local | Amy Nip 31 Aug 2018

A group of nano "transformer robots" that can be used as drug carriers to treat cancer and stroke patients has been developed.

Created by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the robots are seen as a remarkable breakthrough, as they can form into different shapes inside the human body.

They are actually millions of magnetic nanoparticles that together can form different shapes.

By tuning the applied magnetic field, they are capable of performing diverse and reversible morphological changes, including being extended and shrunk, as well as split and merged.

Zhang Li, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering, said the team was inspired by "swarm behavior" in nature.

Swarm behavior is not only found in birds, who fly alongside each other to form different shapes, but also in fish and bacteria.

Through communication, they can dramatically change their shapes according to the environment they interact with.

For example, a swarm of ants can create structures such as chains using their interconnected bodies as building blocks in order to traverse difficult terrain.

Inspired by them, researchers tried to develop "robot swarms," in which units can cooperate with each other to accomplish tasks that cannot or have hardly been done by individual agents.

Zhang said the new robots can be used in manufacturing involving microfabrication - the fabrication of miniature structures of micrometer scales or smaller.

There is also a high potential for it to be developed into a targeted drug delivery system inside humans and animals.

"Nano-robot swarms can be programmed to help surgeons conduct complex tasks such as passing through tiny spaces in the human body," Zhang said. "We are now working together with collaborators from the medical school at CUHK to explore and understand the potential for using nano-robots and the micro-robotic platform for clinical applications."

The nano-robots can be inserted into the human body via an injection or during surgery. The team is now conducting experiments on mice, whereby the robots will carry drugs to clear blood clots and treat strokes.

The clinical application on humans may start in five to 10 years.

The same robots can be applied in target therapies for cancer patients, and in minimally invasive and eye surgeries, according to the team.

The findings have been published in Nature Communications, a prestigious international scientific journal.

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