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Could MRI Take Robotic Medicine to the Next Level?

Researchers are developing tiny MRI-guided robots that could someday be used to deliver drugs or to self-assemble to form interventional tools for more targeted treatment options.

Kristopher Sturgis

Researchers in Houston are working on a new approach to drug delivery using MRI-guided mini robots.

Robotics in medicine could soon be taking the next big leap forward, thanks to a new approach to drug delivery with a technology designed to harness the power of MRI to guide dozens of tiny robots throughout the body to deliver drugs.

Learn from industry experts at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 3-4, 2017.

The new method has been under investigation by a group of researchers from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist Hospital. The two institutions have teamed up to design a series of algorithms and computational methods that can work with imaging technologies to create an innovative new approach to targeted drug delivery and treatment.

Aaron Becker, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH and principal investigator on the study, said the goal all along has been to create a new force of robots that can work alongside existing medical technologies to open up new avenues of diagnosis and treatment options.

"Our goal is to use small robots to work cooperatively," he told Qmed. "Magnetic resonance offers unparalleled imaging of soft tissues, and we can use the MR scanner's own magnetic coils to steer small magnetized particles. The big challenge was that MR scanners are designed for imaging, not for pushing mini robots around. That would require several mechanical tricks to store and harvest energy."

Becker said the MRI scanner provides enough magnetic force to steer the robots through the body's blood vessels, but isn't strong enough to penetrate tumors or other human tissue. Currently the group is working with two different designs powered by MRI scanners to help address the issue. The first design is based on the principle of mechanical resonance, while the other is modeled after a self-assembling surgical tool known as a Gauss gun.

The current models are roughly two centimeters in size, but Becker said the goal is to create a fleet of mini-robot models that can range anywhere from 0.5 millimeters up to two millimeters -- meaning they can be sized down to be smaller than a single human hair. He said creating robots at the micro-level and controlling their movements is what will help offer treatments with more precision.

"This technique is most promising for targeting hard-to-reach areas that are deep inside the body," Becker said. "We also foresee an impact on how real-time MR imaging is conducted, and in addition to drug delivery, we are pursuing small surgical interventions, including cyst penetration."

Becker said the technology could be ready for clinical use within the next decade, but that bringing this reality to fruition will require a courageous team of robotics researchers, MR-physicists, and clinical doctors who want to extend the boundaries of what is possible.

With new robotic technologies popping up everywhere in medicine, the group remains hopeful that these tiny robots can carve out their own little niche. Ultimately, Becker said that developing a fleet of microsurgeons that can be guided by a physician to deliver targeted drug treatments remains his goal -- but why stop there? They've already begun to explore new possibilities, such as the ability to deliver chemotherapy drugs, or even target and destroy tumors. With these new mini robots, the sky may truly be the limit. 

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributing writer for Qmed.

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