California start-up sends tiny robots on a journey into the brains

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Los Angeles (AFP) – Sending miniature robots deep inside the human skull to treat brain diseases has long been science fiction – but it may soon become a reality, according to a California start-up.

Bionaut Labs is planning 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 came about long before I was born,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Shpigelmacher.

“One of the most famous examples is a book by Isaac Asimov and a movie called ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ in which a crew of scientists enter a miniaturized spaceship into the brain 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 microrobots, “which used to be science fiction in the 1950s and 60s,” is now “a science fact,” Shpigelmacher said.

“We want to take the old idea and make it a reality,” the 53-year-old scientist told AFP during a tour of his firm’s Los Angeles research and development center.

In collaboration with Germany’s prestigious 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 located outside the patient’s skull are connected to a computer that can remotely and gently maneuver the micro-robot into the affected part of the brain before being removed in the same way.

The whole device is easy to transport, unlike an MRI, and uses 10 to 100 times less electricity.

‘You’re stuck’

In a simulation seen by AFP, the robot – a metal cylinder only a few millimeters long, in the shape of a small sphere – slowly follows a pre-programmed path through a gel-filled container, which mimics the human brain density.

As it approaches a bag filled with blue liquid, the robot is quickly propelled like a rocket and pierces the sack with its pointed end so that the liquid can flow out.

Inventors hope to use the robot to pierce fluid-filled cysts in the brain when clinical trials begin in two years.

If successful, the process can be used to treat Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a rare brain malformation that affects children.

Sufferers of the congenital disorder may experience cysts the size of a golf ball, which swell and increase the pressure on the brain, triggering a wide range of dangerous neurological conditions.

Bionaut Labs CEO and Founder Michael Shpigelmacher shows off the little remote-controlled medical micro-robot called Bionaut that his company is developing for medical treatments Robyn Beck AFP

Bionaut Labs has already tested its robots on large animals such as sheep and pigs, and “the data shows that the technology is safe for us humans,” Shpigelmacher said.

If approved, the robots can offer important benefits over existing treatments for brain diseases.

“Today, most of the brain surgery and brain intervention is limited to straight lines – if you do not have a straight line to the goal, you are stuck, you are not getting there,” Shpigelmacher said.

Micro-robot technology “allows you to reach goals you were not able to reach and reach them repeatedly in the safest trajectory possible,” he added.

‘Warming up’

Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued Bionaut Labs approvals that pave the way for clinical trials to treat Dandy-Walker Syndrome, as well as malignant gliomas – brain tumors that are often considered inoperable.

In the latter case, the microrobots will be used to inject anti-cancer drugs directly into brain tumors in a “surgical attack”.

Existing treatment methods involve bombarding the entire body with drugs, leading to potentially serious side effects and loss of effectiveness, Shpigelmacher said.

Bionaut Labs is planning its first human clinical trials in just two years for its small injectable robots, which can be guided through the brain using magnets
Bionaut Labs is planning its first human clinical trials in just two years for its small injectable robots, which can be guided through the brain using magnets Robyn Beck AFP

The micro-robots can also take measurements and collect tissue samples while inside the brain.

Bionaut Labs – which has about 30 employees – has had discussions with partners about the use of their technology to treat other conditions that affect the brain, including Parkinson’s, epilepsy or stroke.

“As far as I know, we are the first commercial effort” to design a product of this type with “a clear path to the clinical trials,” Shpigelmacher said.

“But I do not think we will be the only ones … This area is getting warmer.”

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