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Tiny Robotic ‘Hands’ Could Improve Cancer Diagnostics, Drug Delivery

Scientists develop soft, star-shaped microgrippers

Many people imagine robots as clunky, metal versions of humans, but scientists are forging new territory in the field of “soft robotics.”

One of the latest advances is a flexible, microscopic hand-like gripper developed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. The new development could help doctors perform remotely guided surgical procedures or perform biopsies. In addition, the materials could someday deliver therapeutic drugs to hard-to-reach sites.

The new research was published online in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Dr. David H. Gracias and his colleagues note that many robotic tools require cords to provide power to generate their movements. But cords add to the bulk of robots, which limits the spaces they can access.

To address this constraint, scientists have turned to hydrogels. These soft materials can swell in response to changes in temperature, acidity, or light, thereby providing energy to carry out tasks without being tethered to a power source. Hydrogels, however, are too floppy for some applications, so the team combined the hydrogels with a stiff biodegradable polymer, making star-shaped microhands strong enough to wrap around and remove cells.

The researchers then sought a way to control where the grippers go once deployed in the body. They incorporated magnetic nanoparticles in the materials so they could guide the microhands with a magnetic probe. The team concluded that this added trait could help in the microassembly or microengineering of soft or biological parts, or could give surgeons the ability to remotely direct where biopsies are taken.

Moreover, Gracias says that the use of soft materials highlights the possibility of creating biodegradable, miniaturized surgical tools that can safely dissolve in the body.

Sources: ACS; February 4, 2015; and ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces; January 16, 2015.


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