From the fictitious Rosie the Robot on the cartoon The Jetsons to Roomba the real-life vacuum cleaner, robots are transforming our world. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley are testing a new type of robot that may help fight disease.
Seung-Wuk Lee, a bioengineer at UC Berkeley, and his team are leading the way in a new field, building “soft” robots that can squeeze through small spaces – even travel throughout our bodies.
“Our hair is 100 microns, so therefore we can make our materials smaller than our hairs,” said Lee.
The soft robots are made with a combination of materials that can absorb or release water when cooled or heated. The materials also bend when exposed to near-infrared laser light, kind of like how plants grow and move towards light.
“When it’s in the body and you shine a laser, it will contract and that’s how it releases,” said Malav Desai, a bioengineering student at UC Berkeley. When it contracts it releases water that has been infused with a drug that is then dispersed throughout the body.
“You could almost think of it as squeezing a sponge,” said Eddie Wang, a bioengineering student at UC Berkeley.
The soft robot could be implanted inside the body and used for delivering drugs. After shining the laser on it, the drugs are released. Most pills only deliver drugs for a relatively short period of time as the pill dissolves within the body. The advantage of these tiny robots is that they could potentially deliver needed drugs for extended durations.
“Once you have it in your body you can have it for a long period of time,” said Desai.
The soft robots could also be used for tissue engineering and procuring sample tissue without surgery.
Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California. She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.
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Seung-Wuk Lee, University of California, Berkeley