Any kind of surgery involves risks and over the years, the medical profession has worked to mitigate these dangers.
In the latest development, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology have created a tiny, ingestible robot designed to perform minor procedures in the stomach, allowing patients to avoid going under the knife. They presented their research at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation earlier this week.
“It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care,” Daniela Rus, an electrical engineer at MIT and one of the researchers behind the robot, said in a press release.
The robot, which has so far been incased in an ice capsule for swallowing, is made out of dried pig intestine used in sausage casings. Once the ice around it melts, the robot unfolds itself. Researchers control it using an external magnetic field, and it can be manipulated to perform minor tasks that normally require surgery. It moves partially with the stomach’s own churning, and partially with a stick-slip motion, which relies on friction between the robot and the stomach lining. This kind of motion is similar to the way that two objects rubbing against each other suddenly jerk past one another.
In particular, researchers hope that this robot can be used to remove accidentally swallowed button batteries, which contain toxic chemicals that can embed the battery into the stomach lining. Once the robot attaches itself to the battery, it can be easily passed through the rest of the digestive system. (In the US, there are about 3,500 instances of individuals accidentally swallowing batteries per year.)
This robot is not yet ready to operate on humans. Rus explained that the next steps for her and her team will be to test the robot using cell models. They also plan on adding sensors to gather information about the gut, and programs that would eliminate the need for an external controlling device.