August 24, 2012      

Editor?s note: Medical diagnostics from the inside out that ?allow patients to be painlessly and thoroughly examined anytime, anywhere.? That?s the incredibly small world of Cyberplasm?micro-scale biohybrid robots constructed using principles of synthetic biology?which are being developed in a range of sizes from 1 centimeter to 100 micrometers (1 centimeter equals 2.45 inches while 10,000 micrometers equal 1 centimeter). That?s small! However, the very small world of Cyberplasm robotics is gaining momentum and importance. Here?s one that?s about five years away from going commercial.

?Cyberplasm? sounds like the title of a scratchy old science fiction movie, the kind that turns up late at night during cult movie festivals. Yet the real Cyberplasm, currently being developed by scientists at Newcastle University in England, promises to be almost as strange as any movie-inspired creature, but far less scary and much more useful to a wide range of medical offices, hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities.

Seeking out the telltale signs of disease

The idea, according to Daniel Frankel, the Newcastle University bioengineer who is leading the Cyberplasm project, is to create a robot that functions like a living creature. Using funding from Britain?s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the U.S.?s National Science Foundation (NSF), Frankel and his team are developing a tiny robot that can enter a human body and seek out the telltale signs left by a wide range of diseases.

Based on the sea lamprey, a snake-like creature found mostly in Atlantic coastal waters, Cyberplasm is being designed with artificial muscles that will propel it through a patient?s body. Powered by glucose, the micro-robot will be equipped with an array of tiny yet powerful sensors and a network that will mimic the sea lamprey?s primitive nervous system.

Frankel says that Cyberplasm?s sight and smell sensors will be sourced from mammalian cells, allowing the machine to respond to light and chemicals within its environment. “There?s really nothing that equals a living creature’s intrinsic ability to see and smell its environment and to collect data on what’s going on around it,” Frankel says.

To swim around a body unnoticed by its host

Cyberplasm is so inconspicuous and small (a prototype currently being developed will measure just one centimeter in length) that it will be able to swim around a body unnoticed by its host and without causing any tissue disruption or damage. Future versions, Frankel reports, could potentially be less than 1mm long or even built on a nanoscale. ?You would have to look very hard to be able to see it,? he says.

Cyberplasm Nervous System

Cyberplasm’s light and smell sensors are being developed to convert external stimuli into electronic signals. The impulses will be transmitted to a central processing unit and supporting chips. The CPU will then interpret the data and send control signals to the artificial muscles, managing the rate of contractions and releases and enabling the robot to safely navigate its way through the body using a snake-like slithering motion. The robot will also store chemical data collected by the sensors for later recovery by the robot’s operators and analysis by medical personnel.

Beyond diagnostic applications

If the current research achieves its expected goals, Frankel believes that Cyberplasm could usher in a new generation of diagnostic mini-robots that will allow patients to be painlessly and thoroughly examined anytime, anywhere, without having to visit a doctor?s office or clinic. The technology also creates the possibility that people may have tiny diagnostic robots operating inside their bodies on a routine basis, with the machines operating silently and unnoticeably until a potential disease condition is detected.

Beyond diagnostic applications, Frankel believes that Cyberplasm represents an important first step on the road toward next-generation prosthetics, potentially leading to artificial limbs incorporating living muscle tissue engineered to contract and relax in response to stimulation from light waves or electronic signals emitted by handheld devices or even the brain.

If everything goes as planned, Cyberplasm and similar diagnostic mini-robots could become an accepted diagnostic technology within just a few years. “We are currently developing and testing Cyberplasm’s individual components,” Frankel says. “We hope to get to the assembly stage within a couple of years and we believe Cyberplasm could start being used in the real-world sometime within the next five years.?

See also: Robotics Meets Synthetic Biology