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Imagining a less invasive surgery with MRI-powered millirobots

por Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter | May 27, 2015
Injections of tiny robots called "millirobots," powered by MRI scanners, might one day be able to treat hydrocephalus and other conditions. Researchers at the University of Houston have found a way to harness the energy from MRI scanners to power the millirobots to penetrate tissue.

In order to treat hydrocephalus, surgeons have to cut through the patient’s skull and implant pressure-relieving shunts. But hydrocephalus is an ideal candidate for this minimally-invasive approach since the ventricles are filled with fluid and connected to the spinal canal. The surgeon would use a hypodermic needle or lumbar puncture to inject the millirobots into the patient’s spinal canal and they would then be driven out of the body by the MRI energy afterwards.

The researchers first used high-quality brain images generated from the MRI scanner to map out the routes for the millirobots. They then hacked the MRI and utilized its magnetic energy to push the millirobots to the desired location.
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"The approach proposed here involves navigating individual millirobots to a target location and allowing them to self-assemble in a manner that focuses the stored magnetic potential energy as kinetic energy for tissue penetration," the researchers wrote.

The researchers used the same principle behind the Gauss gun toy, which involves one steel ball separated from three other steel balls by a couple of high-powered magnets. When the steel ball is rolled toward the other balls, the one at the very end shoots off at a high velocity.

The millirobots are 3-D printed and composed of high-impact plastic and slender titanium rod spacers that separate two steel balls. The MRI’s energy is used to magnetize the steel balls and propel them forward.

So far, the researchers have tested the approach on phantoms inside of an unmodified clinical MRI scanner but the work is still conceptual at this stage. Going forward, they are working toward exploring its place in the clinical setting, miniaturizing the device, and optimizing the material components.

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