The army of 'bacteriabots' that could combat cancer tumors

At number 18 on IE's 22 best innovations of 2022, we take a look back at the biobots that could one day tackle diseases.
Sade Agard
Conceptual model of microrobot interacting with human biology
Conceptual model of microrobot interacting with human biology

iStock/ Volodymyr Horbovyy   

In September, Interesting Engineering (IE) reported that a team of scientists successfully combined robotics with biology to construct 'biohybrid microrobots,' or 'bacteriabots.'

Not only did the research demonstrate that equipping E. coli bacteria with artificial components is possible, but the scientists could also precisely navigate the bots remotely using magnets. 

Biobots: 'A blooming field in cancer immunotherapy"

In this case, the bacteriabots colonized 3D tumor spheroids. They delivered chemotherapeutic molecules, demonstrating an innovative on-demand drug delivery method for cancer treatment.

IE recently caught up with Dr Birgül Akolpoglu and the team from the Physical Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent systems, who commented, "Bacteria-based cancer research is a blooming field in cancer immunotherapy." 

"Our work is a great example of basic research combined with microrobotic approach that aims to benefit our society."

As a sub-field of microrobotics, the bacteriabots offer significant advantages over comparable microbots for multifunctional medical operations. The team explained that this is because they come with vital inherent characteristics such as onboard actuation and sensing. 

A non-invasive, 'on-spot' delivery approach

The army of 'bacteriabots' that could combat cancer tumors
Conceptual model of biohybrid microbots remotely controlled by magnetism

The biobots are also time-limited and capable of self-destruction without leaving any biohazards behind. As demonstrated by the team's bots, they can even be targeted for a particular task. In this case, they could be drawn to conditions indicative of tumor tissue, such as low oxygen levels or high acidity. 

Significantly, such an 'on-spot' delivery approach addresses one of the most significant shortcomings of modern medicine. That is, collateral damage during clinical interventions. This includes unwanted side effects of chemotherapies on other organs. 

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Instead, biohybrid microbotics enables the manipulation of cells at their size scale in closed environments (such as blood vessels and tissues) and non-invasively. I.e., delivering drugs only where needed and not inside the entire body.

Tapping into cells' natural characteristics 

Additionally, the team's engineered bacteriabots could be used to trigger an immune response while tapping into the naturally fast and versatile swimming traits that E. coli bacteria offer in a range of liquids, including highly viscous tissues. 

As medical advances forge a path to biorobotic devices and procedures, the development of these 'biobots' could one day be used to treat a whole range of diseases and medical conditions.

Better yet, there may even come a time when treatment of a condition such as a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or a broken finger will involve just a simple biorobot injection.

This is number 18 in Interesting Engineering's series showcasing the best innovations of 2022. Check back to discover more about groundbreaking AI, unique solar panels, new 3D printing methods, and much more.