Gummy-like robots that could help prevent disease

February 8, 2019, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
EPFL scientists have developed microscopic, hydrogel-based muscles that can manipulate and mechanically stimulate biological tissue. These soft, biocompatible robots could be used for targeted therapy and to help diagnose and prevent disease. Credit: Nebahat Yenihayat

Human tissues experience a variety of mechanical stimuli that can affect their ability to carry out their physiological functions, such as protecting organs from injury. The controlled application of such stimuli to living tissues in vivo and in vitro has now proven instrumental to studying the conditions that lead to disease.

At EPFL, Selman Sakar's research team has developed micromachines able to mechanically stimulate cells and microtissue. These tools, which are powered by cell-sized artificial muscles, can carry out complicated manipulation tasks under physiological conditions on a microscopic scale.

The tools consist of microactuators and soft robotic devices that are wirelessly activated by laser beams. They can also incorporate , which means they can be used to perform combinatorial tests that involve high-throughput chemical and mechanical stimulation of a variety of biological samples. This research has been published in Lab on a Chip.

Like Legos

The scientists came up with the idea after observing the in action. "We wanted to create a modular system powered by the contraction of distributed actuators and the deformation of compliant mechanisms," says Sakar.

Their system involves assembling various hydrogel components—as if they were Lego bricks—to form a compliant skeleton, and then creating tendon-like polymer connections between the skeleton and the microactuators. By combining the bricks and actuators in different ways, scientists can create an array of complicated micromachines.

These tools, which are powered by cell-sized artificial muscles, can carry out complicated manipulation tasks under physiological conditions on a microscopic scale. Credit: EPFL
"Our soft actuators contract rapidly and efficiently when activated by near-infrared light. When the entire nanoscale actuator network contracts, it tugs on the surrounding device components and powers the machinery," says Berna Ozkale, the study's lead author.

With this method, scientists are able to remotely activate multiple microactuators at specified locations—a dexterous approach that produces exceptional results. The microactuators complete each contraction-relaxation cycle in milliseconds with large strain.

In addition to its utility in , this technology offers practical applications as well. For instance, doctors could use these devices as tiny medical implants to mechanically stimulate tissue or to actuate mechanisms for the on-demand delivery of biological agents.

Explore further: Researchers apply textile fabrication principles to the production of microactuators

More information: Berna Özkale et al, Modular soft robotic microdevices for dexterous biomanipulation, Lab on a Chip (2019). DOI: 10.1039/c8lc01200h

Related Stories

Smaller, smarter, softer robotic arm for endoscopic surgery

August 2, 2017

Flexible endoscopes can snake through narrow passages to treat difficult to reach areas of the body. However, once they arrive at their target, these devices rely on rigid surgical tools to manipulate or remove tissue. These ...

New soft robots really suck

August 31, 2017

EPFL scientists have created the first functional robot powered entirely by vacuum: made up of soft building blocks, it moves by having air sucked out of them. The robot can be reconfigured to perform different tasks, like ...

Cultivating 4-D tissues—the self-curving cornea

January 17, 2019

Scientists at Newcastle University have developed a biological system which lets cells form a desired shape by moulding their surrounding material—in the first instance creating a self-curving cornea.

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.