Chinese scientists are creating a tiny robot that could help treat brain aneurysms and tumors

Chinese scientists are creating a tiny robot that could help treat brain aneurysms and tumors

Brain aneurysms and tumors are life-threatening conditions that kill more than 750,000 people a year.

Embolization to stop blood flow is one of the first treatments. This minimally invasive procedure is usually performed by inserting a catheter into the femoral artery and advancing it through the blood vessels until it reaches the target site, where embolic agents are delivered to close the vessel.

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But this method “is often limited by poor catheter maneuverability in complex neurovascular networks,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Robotics on Wednesday.

They noted that it also exposes surgeons to radiation for long periods because the procedure is performed manually under an X-ray.

While robots have been proposed to move the catheter remotely, they said the idea “remains challenging” because of issues such as distortion.

The tiny robot was used to perform embolization by blocking the blood vessel branch or sending particles into it to “starve” the tumor. Image: Scientific Robotics

To address these issues, the team from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Hefei University of Science and Technology of China, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University designed an untethered magnetically controlled soft robot.

Their study found that it can perform robotic embolization in blood vessel branches that conventional catheters cannot reach.

“The microfiber robot, composed of magnetized fiber wound into a spiral shape, can adapt to different sizes of vessels and performs corkscrew propulsion when subjected to an external magnetic field,” wrote Melissa Yashinsky, associate editor of the journal, in paper editor’s summary.

“These proposed robots provide a controllable alternative to conventional catheter-based embolization.”

The robot is tiny – about half a millimeter. It can change shape by elongating or aggregating, and can be steered up and down using magnetic fields.

And because it would have to travel a long way to reach the target blood vessels, the team proposed that it be used as an adjunct to catheter-based embolization to “maximize their clinical effectiveness.”

A catheter will be used to approach the target, then the robot will be injected into the blood vessel through the catheter and guided where it needs to go using an X-ray image.

“If the microfiber robot ends up in the wrong junction, it can easily be reoriented to the correct path,” the team wrote.

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Once the robot is on target, it can perform embolization in two ways.

It can aggregate in a vascular branch to form a tight formation that blocks the blood supply. This can reduce bleeding from aneurysms and stop blood flow to brain tumors.

The researchers said it would be possible to use multiple robots for this treatment because magnetic fields directing others would not cause an aggregated robot to move.

Embolization of a brain tumor can also be done by sending particles into a branch of the vessel to aggregate and “flatten the tumor for accelerated removal.” Cutting off blood flow to the tumor causes it to stop growing and can even shrink the tumor by killing cells, according to the paper.

For this type of embolization, the robot is used to block a “healthy” vessel before the particles are released into the target branches. Once complete, the robot can be removed from the healthy branch.

In tests on a model vascular system, the team found that the twin robots in a healthy branch had a particle blocking ratio of up to 88 percent.

The robots have also been tested on the hind legs of rabbits. Three weeks after the embolization, the robots continued to block blood flow, and tests on the rabbit’s organs found “no inflammation or pathological abnormalities,” the researchers said.

They cautioned that the robots are “still in their infancy” and that further tests using different robot sizes, materials and positioning systems to guide them, such as ultrasound, are needed.

But they concluded that the devices have potential. “We anticipate that our magnetic soft microfiber robots will pave the way for untethered robotic embolization of cerebral aneurysms and brain tumors in the future,” the paper said.

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