Tiny, Injectable Robots Could Be the Future of Brain Treatments

Movie still from the 1966 film "Fantastic Voyage" depicting a shrunken submarine amid red blood cells

A movie still from the 1966 film "Fantastic Voyage"

20th Century Fox

In the 1966 movie "Fantastic Voyage," actress Raquel Welch and her submarine were shrunk to the size of a cell in order to eliminate a blood clot in a scientist's brain. Now, 55 years later, the scenario is becoming closer to reality.

California-based startup Bionaut Labs has developed a nanobot about the size of a grain of rice that's designed to transport medication to the exact location in the body where it's needed. If you think about it, the conventional way to deliver medicine makes little sense: A painkiller affects the entire body instead of just the arm that's hurting, and chemotherapy is flushed through all the veins instead of precisely targeting the tumor.


"Chemotherapy is delivered systemically," Bionaut-founder and CEO Michael Shpigelmacher says. "Often only a small percentage arrives at the location where it is actually needed."

But what if it was possible to send a tiny robot through the body to attack a tumor or deliver a drug at exactly the right location?

Several startups and academic institutes worldwide are working to develop such a solution but Bionaut Labs seems the furthest along in advancing its invention. "You can think of the Bionaut as a tiny screw that moves through the veins as if steered by an invisible screwdriver until it arrives at the tumor," Shpigelmacher explains. Via Zoom, he shares the screen of an X-ray machine in his Culver City lab to demonstrate how the half-transparent, yellowish device winds its way along the spine in the body. The nanobot contains a tiny but powerful magnet. The "invisible screwdriver" is an external magnetic field that rotates that magnet inside the device and gets it to move and change directions.

The current model has a diameter of less than a millimeter. Shpigelmacher's engineers could build the miniature vehicle even smaller but the current size has the advantage of being big enough to see with bare eyes. It can also deliver more medicine than a tinier version. In the Zoom demonstration, the micorobot is injected into the spine, not unlike an epidural, and pulled along the spine through an outside magnet until the Bionaut reaches the brainstem. Depending which organ it needs to reach, it could be inserted elsewhere, for instance through a catheter.

"The hope is that we can develop a vehicle to transport medication deep into the body," says Max Planck scientist Tian Qiu.

Imagine moving a screw through a steak with a magnet — that's essentially how the device works. But of course, the Bionaut is considerably different from an ordinary screw: "At the right location, we give a magnetic signal, and it unloads its medicine package," Shpigelmacher says.

To start, Bionaut Labs wants to use its device to treat Parkinson's disease and brain stem gliomas, a type of cancer that largely affects children and teenagers. About 300 to 400 young people a year are diagnosed with this type of tumor. Radiation and brain surgery risk damaging sensitive brain tissue, and chemotherapy often doesn't work. Most children with these tumors live less than 18 months. A nanobot delivering targeted chemotherapy could be a gamechanger. "These patients really don't have any other hope," Shpigelmacher says.

Of course, the main challenge of the developing such a device is guaranteeing that it's safe. Because tissue is so sensitive, any mistake could risk disastrous results. In recent years, Bionaut has tested its technology in dozens of healthy sheep and pigs with no major adverse effects. Sheep make a good stand-in for humans because their brains and spines are similar to ours.

Photo of the Bionaut, a yellowish clear drug delivery device

The Bionaut device is about the size of a grain of rice.

Bionaut Labs

"As the Bionaut moves through brain tissue, it creates a transient track that heals within a few weeks," Shpigelmacher says. The company is hoping to be the first to test a nanobot in humans. In December 2022, it announced that a recent round of funding drew $43.2 million, for a total of 63.2 million, enabling more research and, if all goes smoothly, human clinical trials by early next year.

Once the technique has been perfected, further applications could include addressing other kinds of brain disorders that are considered incurable now, such as Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease. "Microrobots could serve as a bridgehead, opening the gateway to the brain and facilitating precise access of deep brain structure – either to deliver medication, take cell samples or stimulate specific brain regions," Shpigelmacher says.

Robot-assisted hybrid surgery with artificial intelligence is already used in state-of-the-art surgery centers, and many medical experts believe that nanorobotics will be the instrument of the future. In 2016, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of "the world's smallest machines," nano "elevators" and minuscule motors. Since then, the scientific experiments have progressed to the point where applicable devices are moving closer to actually being implemented.

Bionaut's technology was initially developed by a research team lead by Peer Fischer, head of the independent Micro Nano and Molecular Systems Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. Fischer is considered a pioneer in the research of nano systems, which he began at Harvard University more than a decade ago. He and his team are advising Bionaut Labs and have licensed their technology to the company.

"The hope is that we can develop a vehicle to transport medication deep into the body," says Max Planck scientist Tian Qiu, who leads the cooperation with Bionaut Labs. He agrees with Shpigelmacher that the Bionaut's size is perfect for transporting medication loads and is researching potential applications for even smaller nanorobots, especially in the eye, where the tissue is extremely sensitive. "Nanorobots can sneak through very fine tissue without causing damage."

In "Fantastic Voyage," Raquel Welch's adventures inside the body of a dissident scientist let her swim through his veins into his brain, but her shrunken miniature submarine is attacked by antibodies; she has to flee through the nerves into the scientist's eye where she escapes into freedom on a tear drop. In reality, the exit in the lab is much more mundane. The Bionaut simply leaves the body through the same port where it entered. But apart from the dramatization, the "Fantastic Voyage" was almost prophetic, or, as Shpigelmacher says, "Science fiction becomes science reality."

This article was first published by Leaps.org on April 12, 2021.

Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!
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