Zurich – Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich have built a microrobot that imitates the moving and feeding mechanisms found in starfish larvae. The device measures just a quarter of a millimeter across and could be used in the field of medicine in the foreseeable future.

A research team at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) has developed a microrobot inspired by starfish larvae. As with the small invertebrates, the robot is able to move in liquid using tiny hairs and can draw in the liquid along with any particles it contains.

Microrobots mimic starfish larvae
Image: ETH

The press release states: “In the future, such microswimmers could deliver drugs to diseased cells with pinpoint accuracy.” This is because the robot can also collect particles and channel them in a particular direction in a focused way. To do so, its hairs, driven by ultrasonic waves, move a thousand times faster than those of the starfish larvae.

The advantage of ultrasound is that it is already widely used in imaging to penetrate deep inside the body without posing any health risks. The press release goes on to add that ultrasound devices are also cheap.

Research leader and professor at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering Daniel Ahmed sees an initial possible area of application in the treatment of gastric tumors. “Uptake of conventional drugs by diffusion is inefficient but having microrobots transport a drug specifically to the site of a stomach tumor and then deliver it there might make the drug’s uptake into tumor cells more efficient,” the press release states. Use within industry and research are also possible.

The ultrasound images used to direct the robot to the correct location are still too inaccurate. For this reason, the next step for the researchers is to incorporate contrast medium into the robot in order to make blood vessels visible, for example.

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