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Tiny sensors you can ingest are the health industry’s next big thing

Accidentally swallowed a button battery? In the not too distant future, getting it out could mean swallowing a pill-sized robot.

Researchers at MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology are working on what they’re calling an origami robot.

When swallowed, the tiny robot unfolds itself from a capsule and is controlled by an external magnet to move along the stomach and find the foreign object you swallowed. It will then guide it out of you.

The project builds on previous studies on origami robots by MIT professor Daniela Rus and her team.

Rus said, “It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care. For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether.”

The origami robot is made of a type of dried pig intestine and has a permanent magnet at the center of its accordion folds. The magnet allows the robot to be controlled by applying changing magnetic fields outside the body.

The researchers studied the properties of a pig stomach and created an open cross-section of a stomach and esophagus using silicone rubber. They also mixed water and lemon juice to recreate the acids in the stomach. They then presented a video, showing how the robot can potentially remove a button battery from the stomach. 

In the video, Rus says their next steps include conducting in vivo experiments, adding sensors to the robot, and redesigning it so that it can control itself.

Aside from leading out objects, the robot can also potentially be used to deliver medicine at a specific location or take care of an internal wound. That means patients could opt for a tiny capsule robot instead of going for risky surgery.

Similar research is being done by Pietro Valdastri, of the STORM Lab (Science and Technology of Robotics in Medicine) at Vanderbilt University.

Valdastri is working on capsule robots that can be used for procedures like surgery or colonoscopy. The colonoscopy robot works similarly to the origami robot, in that it too is guided through the patient’s intestines by a magnetic robotic arm from the outside. The robot is equipped with a camera, like a typical colonoscope, but it does away with having a tube pushed through the patient’s body, as well as the need for anaesthesia.

Valdastri and his team hope to conduct human trials in three years.

These tiny robots still need more work and research, but it’s not really a surprise that the future of medicine is heading in that direction, especially when ingestible sensors are already a reality.

Proteus Digital Health, for example, has already developed a tiny, FDA-approved ingestible sensor that communicates with a wearable sensor patch, which records data and sends it to an app.

The tiny sensor basically keeps track of the user’s medication-taking patterns to make sure they’re really following the doctor’s orders.

About the author

Leah enjoys writing about technology, design, architecture, arts and culture, and science.

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