Creepy-crawly gel robots being trained to root out disease in body

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Scientists have created a teeny tiny, creepy crawly-like robot they hope will travel through the human body to cure diseases.

Made of gelatin, the 3D-printed device may eventually replace pills or intravenous injections that can cause problematic side effects.

The “gelbot” — which is powered by temperature changes — feels like a fruit gum, a stark contrast to robots made almost exclusively of hard materials like metals and plastics.

“It seems very simplistic, but this is an object moving without batteries, without wiring, without an external power supply of any kind — just on the swelling and shrinking of gel,” the study’s senior author, David Gracias of Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.

The creation was featured Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

The tiny gelbots are made out of gelatin.
The robots were inspired by an inchworm.
Johns Hopkins University / SWNS

“Our study shows how the manipulation of shape, dimensions and patterning of gels can tune morphology to embody a kind of intelligence for locomotion,” Gracias added.

Previous research has shown gels that swell or shrink in response to temperature can create smart structures.

Scientists are finding they can move the robot forward and backwards on flat surfaces, as well as in certain directions with an undulating, wave-like motion.

The hope is that these devices could deliver drugs directly to a tumor, blood clot or infection while leaving healthy tissue alone. The creation would withhold the medicine until it reaches its target, unlike swallowed tablets or injected liquids.

Another positive is that the robots are cheap and easy to mass produce. They could change how doctors examine patients — serving as minimally invasive devices for biomedical diagnoses and treatments.

Unlike tablets swallowed or liquids injected, the gelbots would withhold medicine until it reaches the target to release a high-concentration drug.
Unlike tablets swallowed or liquids injected, the gelbots would withhold medicine until they reached their target.
Johns Hopkins University / SWNS

Beyond the human body, Gracias could also see them being used as marine robots to patrol and monitor the ocean’s surface to combat pollution.

Gracias, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is planning to train the gelbots to crawl in response to variations in human biomarkers and biochemicals. He is also aiming to test other worm and marine organism-inspired shapes and forms and to place cameras and sensors on their bodies.

Also this year, scientists created a Transformers-style robot inspired by the Japanese paper-folding art of origami. Similar to the gelbots, they would deliver medicine directly to a tumor, blood clot or infection and investigate inner workings of the body. 

In 2020, researchers at Cornell University revealed they were working to develop tiny microscopic machines with legs that could move inside the human body. Basically mini computers, these devices move using laser impulses and are small enough that they are right at home next to microorganisms that already live inside of us.

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