Scientists build tiny biological robots which could heal damaged cells and identify cancer

Credit: Gizem Gumuskaya/TuftsUniversity

Scientists in the US have built microscopic biological robots which can heal damaged cells, potentially paving the way for new treatments for conditions such as nerve damage and atherosclerosis.

The so-called 'anthrobots', which were made from human cells and range in size from the width of a human hair to the point of a sharpened pencil, were found to encourage the growth of neurons across a region of damage in a lab dish.

Researchers at Tuft University in Massachusetts say the robots could one day be sent into the human body to help repair spinal chords, clear the build-up of plaque in arteries or recognise bacteria or cancer cells.

In the study, published in Advanced Science, a team of scientists found that the bots can be created from adult human cells without any genetic modifications, and they have a remarkable healing effect on other cells.

The anthrobots move in the lab at Tufts University in Massachusetts Credit: Gizem Gumuskaya/Tufts University

PhD student Gizem Gumuskaya, who worked on the project, said: "We wanted to probe what cells can do besides create default features in the body."

"By reprogramming interactions between cells, new multicellular structures can be created, analogous to the way stone and brick can be arranged into different structural elements like walls, archways or columns," he added.

The discovery comes after a similar study involved making biological robots made from frog embryo cells.

The advantages of using human cells include the ability to create the robots from a patient's own cells, meaning they would not have to take immunosuppresants.

The robots last a few weeks before breaking down and can then be easily re-absorded into the body after their work is done.

Senior author Michael Levin said: "It is fascinating and completely unexpected that normal patient tracheal cells, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and encourage neuron growth across a region of damage"

"We’re now looking at how the healing mechanism works, and asking what else these constructs can do."

It is hoped the discovery can also help scientists learn more about how the body creates tissues, organs and limbs.

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