Dr. James Friend at Monash University is developing a novel way to make surgery less intrusive, and he’s got micro-robots to help him with this task.
RESEARCHERS at Monash University are developing micro-robots they hope will be able to swim through the human body and perform medical tasks. James Friend’s aim is to build a tiny machine no wider than two human hairs side by side to do the job. But such a device, 250 microns in diameter, seems unimaginable.
Dr Friend, however, points out he has already built a linear motor the size of a salt crystal, and it works – although he admits “we still have a way to go”.
The problem in micro-robotics is designing a motor so small it would be hard to see it, much less have it operate inside the human body. That is only one of the challenges confronting Dr Friend and a team of researchers at Monash’s $4.5 million micro/nano physics research laboratory.
Yet within three years, with the help of a $300,000 grant from the Australian Research Council, Dr Friend believes the microscopic motor could be a reality. Then it will be up to the medical experts to decide how such a machine could be used.
“The one we have in mind that has sparked interest would be injected into an artery or a vein and be able to move through the body and pick up a cell or take a biopsy,” he says. “It could then bring it back, or simply to act as a chemical sensor.” The micro-robots could go where catheters can’t reach, such as certain areas inside the brain.
Major surgery is traumatic and risky but is often the only choice for the most serious diseases that affect older people, Dr Friend says. He hopes to provide a means of avoiding surgery while extending doctors’ abilities to diagnose and treat patients using non or minimally invasive procedures. This would be via a powerful micro-motor carrying its own power supply and a special “propeller” to swim within the vascular and digestive systems of the body while performing tasks via remote control.
But what would move a minute device through the bloodstream when ordinary propellers do not work on such a small scale? The secret is rotation. Dr Friend uses the image of a stockwhip being whirled around its axis – it forms the shape of a coil and if it were in a liquid, it would screw its way through the fluid.
That is how the bacteria E.coli swims through the body’s digestive and vascular systems and is the way the rotating micro-robot motor would travel.