Healing the Brain with Microbots, A Great Journey for a California Startup

“The idea for the little robot goes back to before I was born. One of the most famous examples is a movie called Le Voyage Fantastique, where a team of scientists sails aboard a miniature ship to go to the brain and suck the blood. A clot.”notes Michael Spiegelmacher, CEO of Bionaut Labs.

“In your cell phone, you have a set of very precise, highly advanced micro-gadgets that are smaller than a grain of rice”says this trained roboticist, who has worked in artificial intelligence and consumer electronics.

“What was science fiction in the 1960s is now science fact (…) We want to take this old idea and make it a reality”confirms to AFP the 53-year-old scientist, during a visit to the Bionaut Labs Research and Development Center in Los Angeles.

As a result of a partnership with the prestigious German Max Planck Research Institute, the startup is experimenting with micro-injectable, remote-controlled robots using magnetic energy.

There are other techniques, such as visual or ultrasound testing, but magnetic energy has the advantage of being simple and not interfering with the human body, explains Mr. Spiegelmacher.

Unlike an MRI, the device can be moved easily and consumes ten to a hundred times less electricity.

Magnetic coils placed outside the patient’s skull and the computer are enough to remotely guide a small robot into the brain, as evidenced by an AFP simulation.

Cysts and tumors

The sequence begins, and after a pre-programmed path, the robot – a metal cylinder a few millimeters long with powerful neodymium magnets embedded – begins to develop into a gel that reproduces the brain.

The machine comes to lay itself under a pocket filled with a blue liquid and then suddenly pierces it with its pointed end, propelled like a rocket, allowing the liquid to flow out of the pocket.

The bot can then be extracted following the same path.

When Bionaut Labs begins its first clinical trials, that’s exactly what should penetrate the sacs filled with cerebrospinal fluid in the brain caused by Dandy-Walker malformation, a rare birth condition that affects babies.

These cysts, which can grow to the size of a golf ball, swell and put pressure on the brain, causing a host of serious disorders.

Bionaut Labs has already tested its robots in specialized laboratories “on large animals, sheep and pigs. The data shows that the technology is safe for humans,” assures Michael Spiegelmacher.

“Most brain surgery today is limited to a straight line. If you can’t get to the target in a straight line, you’re stuck.”says Mr. Spiegelmacher.

Injectable robots “Make it possible to reach targets otherwise inaccessible, by following the safest path possible.”

Thanks to these promising first results, the startup has already received clearance from the US Drug Administration (FDA) to test its method for patients with Dandy-Walker syndrome as well as malignant glioma, a precancerous brain tumor. It is considered incurable.

In the latter case, the tiny robot will be equipped with a container containing an anti-cancer treatment and will travel to the tumor to deposit its drug payload there.

The “surgical blow” in which currently available techniques bombard the entire body, with loss of efficacy and many adverse effects, explains Mr. Spiegelmaccher.

“And since we’re a robot, we can close the loop, take measurements and take tissue samples,” the president of Bionaut Labs, which has about thirty employees and continues to hire, is excited.

Bionaut Labs is already in discussions with partners to treat other diseases that affect the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy or stroke.

“As far as I know, we are the first commercial attempt at design” Like this product “But I don’t think we’ll be left alone.”Because academic research is very active, says Michael Spiegelmacher, “about fifteen teams” are currently working on the topic.

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