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Los Angeles (AFP) – Sending miniature robots deep within the human skull to treat brain disorders has long been science fiction, but it could soon become reality, according to a California start-up.
Bionaut Labs plans its first human clinical trials in just two years for its tiny, injectable robots, which can be carefully guided through the brain using magnets.
“The idea for the micro-robot was born long before I was born,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Shpigelmacher.
“One of the most famous examples is an Isaac Asimov book and film called ‘Fantastic Voyage’, where a team of scientists enter the brain of a miniaturized spacecraft to treat a blood clot.”
Just as cell phones now contain extremely powerful components that are smaller than a grain of rice, the technology behind micro-robots “which was once science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s” is now “fact. science,” Shpigelmacher said.
“We want to take this old idea and turn it into reality,” the 53-year-old scientist told AFP during a tour of his company’s research and development center in Los Angeles.
In collaboration with the prestigious German Max Planck research institutes, Bionaut Labs decided to use magnetic energy to propel the robots – rather than optical or ultrasonic techniques – because it does not harm the human body.
Magnetic coils placed outside the patient’s skull are connected to a computer which can remotely and delicately maneuver the micro-robot into the affected part of the brain, before removing it by the same route.
The entire device is easily transportable, unlike an MRI, and consumes 10 to 100 times less electricity.
In a simulation monitored by AFP, the robot — a metallic cylinder a few millimeters long, shaped like a tiny ball — slowly follows a pre-programmed trajectory through a container filled with gel, which emulates the density of being human brain.
Once it approaches a bag filled with blue liquid, the robot is quickly propelled like a rocket and pierces the bag with its pointed end, allowing the liquid to flow out.
The inventors hope to use the robot to drill fluid-filled cysts in the brain when clinical trials begin in two years.
If successful, the process could be used to treat Dandy-Walker syndrome, a rare brain malformation affecting children.
People with the congenital condition can have golf ball-sized cysts, which swell and increase pressure on the brain, triggering a host of dangerous neurological conditions.
Bionaut Labs has already tested its robots on large animals like sheep and pigs, and “data shows the technology is safe for us” humans, Shpigelmacher said.
If approved, the robots could offer key advantages over existing treatments for brain disorders.
“Most brain surgeries and brain interventions today are just straight lines – if you don’t have a straight line to the target, you’re stuck, you won’t get there,” Shpigelmacher said.
Micro-robotic technology “allows you to hit targets you haven’t been able to hit, and repeatedly hit them in the safest possible trajectory,” he added.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year granted Bionaut Labs approvals that pave the way for clinical trials to treat Dandy-Walker syndrome, as well as malignant gliomas – cancerous brain tumors often considered inoperable.
In the latter case, micro-robots will be used to inject anti-cancer drugs directly into brain tumors in a “surgical strike”.
Existing treatment methods involve bombarding the whole body with drugs, which can lead to serious side effects and loss of effectiveness, Shpigelmacher said.
The micro-robots can also take measurements and collect tissue samples inside the brain.
Bionaut Labs – which has about 30 employees – has been in discussions with partners for using its technology to treat other conditions affecting the brain, including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy or stroke.
“To my knowledge, we are the first commercial effort” to design such a product with “a clear path to clinical trials,” Shpigelmacher said.
“But I don’t think we’ll be the only ones… This area is heating up.”
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