By Amanda C. Lee
Advancing technology in modern society and reading about how these new devices have enriched our lives captivates me. I find that learning about technology as it pertains to medicine is especially interesting, which is why this topic really stood out to me. Every morning, it seems as if there’s a new update on modern technology, and I find it all so fascinating. Considering how progressive technology is today, I can only imagine how amazing technology in the future will be!
When you imagine a robot, chances are that you won’t be imagining one small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. What about one that may transform the future of surgical procedures? In 2016, researchers from MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology designed a pretty unconventional robot. Don’t be fooled by its small stature; this origami robot can do so much more than look cute. Although it specializes in foreign object removal, the robot can also patch up wounds, and deliver medicine within the body. Building off of previous work done towards the development of origami robots, this new technology has improved in many ways. From its new design to the way it moves, the origami robot is closer than ever to becoming a part of daily life.
Why Is This Needed?
Surprisingly, over 3 500 Americans accidentally swallow button batteries each year; a devastating 10 each day. In most cases, these batteries pass through the digestive system harmlessly; however, this is not always the case. When a battery gets stuck in the esophagus, it is especially dangerous, as it increasing the possibility of tissue damage. An electrical current can form around the outside of the stuck battery, generating hydroxide that burns through bodily tissues. This was demonstrated by one researcher, who placed a battery on a piece of lunchmeat. Within 30 minutes, the battery was completely submerged in the meat, revealing the damaging effects these batteries would have on humans. Scientists placed special concern on children who don’t report swallowing the batteries.
How Does This Work?
To make the robot, a magnet attaches to a type of dried pig intestine typically used in sausage casings. It can then be frozen into a small pill made of ice, making it easy for the patient to ingest. After swallowed, the ice melts in the stomach, and the origami unfolds, revealing the small robot. An external magnetic field controls the robot, which uses the stick-slip method to move around the stomach. The stick-slip method involves friction to secure the robot to the inner lining of the stomach. Then, when it flexes, the weight distribution causes the robot to slip free. In the battery example, the robot will lift the cell out of the affected area and guide it through the digestive system towards the colon, where it then passes naturally.
To test this robot, scientists filled a pig stomach with a mixture of water and lemon juice to act as stomach acids. After placing a battery inside the stomach, the scientists were able to use the robot to remove it. The successful test points towards a promising future of surgeries without the need for incisions. The next step for scientists is to add sensors that will eliminate the need for magnetic guidance. Currently, researchers are still waiting for approval to begin vivo testing (experimentation on living organisms), a process that can take up to three years. Further approval to experiment on humans could take another 3 years. In other words, while origami robots are gradually improving, we shouldn’t expect to see them until far into the future.
Evidently, I am very interested in what the coming years hold, and I hope that one day, I might even be involved in the development of this new technology. As of today, I’m happy just writing about it.