Sperm-Like 'Bio-Bots' Made Of Polymer And Heart Cells May Deliver Targeted Medicine One Day

By Josh Lieberman on January 20, 2014 2:06 PM EST

bio-bot
Bio-bots powered by heart cells could one day be use to deliver medicine to targets in the body. (Photo: YouTube: NewsAtIllinois)

Engineers from the University of Illinois have created the first-ever synthetic structure that can self-propel through a body's viscous fluids. The sperm-like structure is based modeled after single-celled creatures with flagella, like sperm. The long-term possibilities of such a medical advance could be huge, the researchers say: "Could we make elementary structures and seed them with stem cells that would differentiate into smart structures to deliver drugs, perform minimally invasive surgery or target cancer?"

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Imagine a little robot coursing through your veins in order to deliver a highly targeted payload of medicine, something like a microscopic heat-seeking medicine missile. Study author Taher Saif, a professor of mechanical science and engineering, says the bio-bot is "the minimal amount of engineering--just a head and a wire." (You can see video of the bio-bots in action here.)

The bio-bot, which is detailed in a study in Nature Communications, is powered in a fairly incredible way. The researchers culture the bio-bot's flexible polymer body with heart cells between the head and the tail. The cells then begin to align themselves and beat in unison, propelling the structure forward. If you're wondering exactly how this happens, so are the researchers themselves: they don't fully understand why the cells organize and communicate this way.

"The most intriguing aspect of this work is that it demonstrates the capability to use computational modeling in conjunction with biological design to optimize performance, or design entirely different types of swimming bio-bots," said Roger Kamm, a professor of biological and mechanical engineering at MIT. "This opens the field up to a tremendous diversity of possibilities. Truly an exciting advance."

The bio-bots were created as part of the Science and Technology Center on Emergent Behaviors in Integrated Cellular Systems, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. In 2012, the Science and Technology Center was also responsible for the "walking" bio-bots, autonomous structures composed of rats' heart cells and a 3D-printed hydrogel; the structure contracts and relaxes to create a walking-like movement.

In December 2013, researchers in Germany unveiled a "spermbot" that could have similar applications to Saif's bio-bot. The spermbot traps a sperm in a metal tube, which then swims to the desired location in a body. In addition to fertilization, the spermbot could potentially be used for targeted medicine, like the bio-bot.

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