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Robot ‘microswarms’ could unblock medical devices in the body

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Magnetic microrobots injected into the body could unblock internal medical devices, eliminating the need for further surgery, new research from the University of Essex suggests.

The study is the first time that scientists have developed magnetic microrobotics to remove internal medical devices called shunts which are used to train excess fluid from organs.

Blockages due to sediment build-up commonly cause the shunts to malfunction.

The sediment narrows, preventing the liquid from passing through while also affecting the shunt’s flexibility.

As a result, patients often need to undergo multiple invasive surgeries over their lifetimes, either to replace the shunt or remove the blockage with a catheter.

The new research, led by microrobotics expert Dr Ali Hoshiar, from Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, has shown that there’s a wireless, non-invasive alternative to clearing the blockage in a shunt.

A swarm of hundreds of tiny microrobots made of nano size magnetic nanoparticles injected into the shunt could remove the sediment instead.

Dr Hoshiar said:

“Once the magnetic microrobots are injected into the shunt they can be moved along the tube to the affected area using a magnetic field, generated by a powerful magnet on the body’s surface.

“The swarm of microrobots can then be moved so they scrape away the sediment, clearing the tube.

“The non-invasive nature of this method is a considerable advantage to existing methods as it will potentially eliminate the risk of surgery and a surgery-related infection, thereby decreasing recovery time.”

When the swarm has finished its job, it can either be guided to the stomach using a magnetic field or bodily fluid.

The high biocompatibility of the microrobots means that there’s no risk of toxicity.

This is the first proof-of-concept microswarm experiment of its kind, with the clinicians no set to carry out trials before exploring how the concept can be used in other applications.

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