Living micro-robot could diagnose disease

Biologists and engineers are working on a tiny robot that functions like a living creature and could be safely used within the human body to diagnose disease.

Called ‘Cyberplasm’, it’s based loosely on the sea lamprey, and will have an electronic nervous system, ‘eye’ and ‘nose’ sensors derived from mammalian cells, and artificial muscles that use glucose as an energy source.

It will be less than a centimeter long, with future versions potentially under a millimeter.

“Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore to collect data on what’s going on around it,” says bioengineer Dr Daniel Frankel of Newcastle University.

Sensors are being developed to respond to external stimuli by converting them into electronic impulses, sent to an electronic ‘brain’ equipped with sophisticated microchips.

This brain will then send electronic messages to artificial muscles telling them how to contract and relax, enabling the robot to navigate its way safely using an undulating motion.

Similarly, data on the chemical make-up of the robot’s surroundings can be collected and stored via these systems for later recovery by the robot’s operators.

Cyberplasm could also represent the first step on the road to important advances in, for example, advanced prosthetics where living muscle tissue might be engineered to contract and relax in response to stimulation from light waves or electronic signals.

“We’re currently developing and testing Cyberplasm’s individual components,” says Frankel.

“We hope to get to the assembly stage within a couple of years. We believe Cyberplasm could start being used in real-world situations within five years”.