Robot Caterpillars Could Reduce the Need for Surgery and Help Fight Cancer

It's a doctor that looks like a breath strip.

The idea of robotic insects is likely to conjure a spine-crawling flashback of the scene in The Matrix where a terrifying mechanical silverfish burrows into Neo’s belly button. But in the real world, scientists are using the power of artificial creepy crawlies to heal, not to harm.

Indeed, a robotic caterpillar with the ability to carry up to 100 times its own weight could even replace the need for surgeons in certain drug delivery procedures. The mechanical insect would use hundreds of 1-millimeter long legs — which are shorter than the stubble of a 5 o’clock shadow — to traverse the topographical linings of your gut to deliver medicine without the need of incisions.

After much deliberation — the team weighed bipedal, quadrupedal, or 8-legged creatures as part of the project — a team of biomedical engineers at City University of Hong Kong finally landed on a simulated caterpillar as the drug-deliverer of choice. In a paper published in Nature Communications, they explained that this design is best suited to efficiently move throughout the human body, whether it’s submerged in blood, mucus, or any other gross bodily fluid.

“The rugged surface and changing texture of different tissues inside the human body make transportation challenging. Our multi-legged robot shows an impressive performance in various terrains and hence open wide applications for drug delivery inside the body,” said Wang Zuankai, a professor at CityU’s department of mechanical engineering, in a statement.

How to Make Robots Ready For

The robot is made up of a silicon material named polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a compound found in many shampoos and cosmetic lotions, as well as magnetic particles which allow medical professionals to remotely control it with electromagnetic force.

This could be used to enable targeted drug delivery in a non-invasive or minimally invasive manner, like ingestion or a single injection, to treat cancerous tissue for example. Treatments like chemotherapy can have adverse effects to the entire body, while these smart delivery methods could be contained to just a certain part of the body. But some improvements need to be made until this is entirely possible.

The CityU team wants to upgrade their robotic caterpillar to become biodegradable and test new shapes. Shen Yajin, the lead author of the research anticipates they should be able to make something that safely disintegrates inside the body in two to three years.

This way you don’t have to worry about staying bugged like Neo in the Matrix if you ever need some kind of specialized treatment.