The PillCam Robot

The PillCam Robot

PillCam Miniature Robots. Truthfully, the notion of injecting tiny machines in one’s body and allowing them to travel up and down your insides is fairly disconcerting, something straight off a sci-fi novel. But we have long reached this scientific age and in fact have a number of medical miracles employing such miniscule robots, all built and used precisely for keeping human health in check.

In the last four decades, major technological advances have enabled biomedical researchers to develop devices that basically journey through the human body, delivering drugs, diagnosing disease, and even performing delicate surgery. Most of the devices are developed for the digestive tract, which, apart from being easily accessible, can comfortably accommodate objects several centimeters in size.

Below is an unbelievable film showing the inside of the man who swallowed a Pilcam. Quite a “Fantastic Voyage”!

One such pioneer of these gastrointestinal machines is the PillCam, a tiny capsule equipped with a tiny camera for recording images (via computer) of the digestive tract and intestines. It is only 1.1 cm in diameter and 2.6 cm in length, and transmits pictures of the human insides at a rate of two images per second, and in an 8-hour period, could generate more than 50,000 pictures.

It is a significant alternative diagnostic tool, although some studies have come up regarding its ability to detect cancerous growths in the colon. Standard colonoscopies are said to be more effective at finding precancerous polyps and cancer in the body, but the PillCam continues to be widely used by physicians, as it has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2001.

As the PillCam relies on the body's natural muscle contractions to move through the intestines, it is technically not a robot, but its success has inspired countless of research groups around the world to develop more advanced devices with the same intention — to enter and explore the fragile human body.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, a team by Dr. Dan Peer of the Department of Cell Research and Immunology at Tel Aviv University is building a “submarine” that will rival the one featured in the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage,” where a nuclear submarine named Proteus containing a doctor and his assistant is miniaturized and then injected into a scientist’s brain to save his life.

Last year, the blueprints for this true-to-life submarine PillCam and a map of its proposed maiden voyage were published by Dr. Peer. His team is now in the process of building, and soon, test-running the device in actual human bodies. Though not quite advanced enough to contain human passengers, this version of the Proteus can carry drugs needed to kill cancer cells, eliminate faulty proteins and yes, save human lives.

Made from biological materials, the “submarine” pillcam will be paired by various RNAi compounds that target such diseases and disorders such as cancer, inflammation, and neurodegenerative conditions. Following the necessary FDA approval, we may see these medical submarines launched inside human bodies within three to five years.

Another inspired team of researchers, this time from France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland is also experimenting with multiple capsules that could magnetically snap together once they are inside the human body. The team, called ARES, is working with separately swallowed capsules that would each perform a different task inside the body. Since these medical capsules must be small enough to be swallowed by the average person without difficulty, the idea is to increase functionality while keeping the size constraint in mind. Hence, the self-assembling robot.

Unlike the PillCam, the snake-type modules are designed to be heterogeneous, each having a specific dedicated function. One would power the device, for example, while another would take tissue samples; a third one would take photos and others would perform various tasks as needed. The capsules are all polarized at right angles to the surface, so they correctly attach themselves in order inside the stomach.

The ARES team has already tested its self-assembling robot in an artificial stomach, chalking up a 75 percent success rate. However, in the tests, it was also discovered that the mechanical “snake” did not move smoothly through the stomach and intestine. The team has since developed intermediate links that allow the system to be more mobile, letting the device move wholly, like a multi-link chain through the human stomach.

Other amazing miniature robots (not PillCams) include the tiny spiral-shaped devices that look like and mimic the nature and movement of E. coli and other similar bacteria. Called “Artificial Bacterial Flagella” or ABF (the “flagella” refers to their whip-like tails), these micro-robots were invented, manufactured and enabled by ETH Zurich researchers to swim in a controllable way.

The head of this mini-robot consists of a chromium-nickel-gold tri-layer film, which is also vapor- deposited. While nickel is soft-magnetic, the other materials are non-magnetic. Research team leader Bradley Nelson, Professor at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, explains that this tiny magnetic head “enables the ABF to move in a specific way in a magnetic field.” The spiral-shaped ABF can thus swim through the liquid while its movements are observed and recorded under a microscope.

Through the software developed by the team, the ABF can be guided to a specific target using the magnetic field. These ABFs can then move forwards and backwards, upwards and downwards, as well as rotate in all directions. Unlike their natural role models, these robots are designed for biomedical applications, and help cure diseases. They could remove plaque deposits in arteries, carry needed drugs to specific targets in the body or help biologists modify cellular structures that are too small to be directly manipulated by researchers. The team, however, is still presently carrying out basic research and further investigations are needed before any actual applications.

We also have news of the latest research from the Robotics Laboratory at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. A miniature robotic fly, about 0.04 inches in diameter has been developed by Prof. Moshe Shaham, head of the Robotics Laboratory, and his team. The tiny fly can enter the body and diagnose diseases and conditions such as blocked arteries. And like other miniature robots, it can also deliver medicine to critical areas like infected tumors.

The technology is based on Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), allowing the robot to crawl through arteries and veins, pulled by a magnet controlled from outside the body. The fly has miniscule arms that grip the sides of the vessel walls as it moves towards its targeted location. Now in its early prototype stages, the researchers plan on making the robot even smaller—down to at least a 10th of its current diameter, making its diagnosis and treatment even less invasive.

“We see that more and more miniature devices and research in the medical field are going in this direction: Less invasive medicine and targeted drugs,” Shaham says. “We will see more and more [medical practitioners] working in this way .We hope this discovery can be used to improve the quality of care for diseases and many other conditions.”

As the idea of miniature robots injected inside people’s brains and stomachs become less sci-fi fodder and more a medical reality, our scientists and researchers probably need to watch more movies like “Fantastic Voyage” for inspiration. Then maybe one day we truly can fit miniature doctor’s assistants like Raquel Welch inside our bodies to save our lives— though I’m quite sure the robotic flies are just as capable.

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