Brain Cancer: Robotic Worms Could Soon Be Used to Destroy Tumors

Chinese researchers have developed robotic worms that can move through blood vessels to reach patients’ brains and directly destroy the tumors, avoiding the serious side effects of conventional treatments.

Brain Tumors

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors are rare diseases that are responsible for 2% of all cancer deaths. Almost 700,000 Americans are currently living with brain tumors. Patients are usually treated with radiotherapy or chemotherapy, treatments with very serious side effects. In some cases, surgery is an option. However, the surgeon cannot remove healthy tissue around the tumor to prevent possible relapse. Also removing too much tissue can lead to irreversible neurological consequences. However, new work by Chinese scientists may soon revolutionize treatment in this area. According to a January 20 article in the South China Morning Post, researchers were able to create robotic worms that can travel through blood vessels to reach patients’ brains and target tumors directly. The results of their research were published earlier this month in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

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These “robot worms” measure from 1 to 3 mm and work without batteries, because they use an external magnetic field system. They have made the heads of these worms from a magnet consisting of an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron and the tails from a special composite material. To activate the robot worm in the brain, the patient will have to stand still, placed in a magnetic resonance machine to create the corresponding magnetic field. Once inside the body, the worm will be able to bring drugs to the target area, avoiding the side effects associated with conventional treatments. Once it has accomplished its mission, it will leave the patient’s body on its own.

If brain implants already exist, the revolution here lies in the way robots are inserted into the patient, because currently brain implants can only be inserted through a complicated surgical procedure. They, therefore, have a limited capacity for integration with neurons and can only perform a few basic tasks.

Our goal is not to develop a biological weapon

Here, the transformative capacity of the new Chinese robots will allow them to survive in this difficult environment, where blood flow is fast and blood vessels are small. They can “function as an implant for the brain-computer interface,” says Xu Tiantian, the senior scientist of the project at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology. This would allow direct communication with a computer without a keyboard or screen.

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But some of the capabilities of these robot worms may be a concern. In fact, thanks to infrared radiation, these machines can penetrate the bodies of different people. In addition, the body of the worm is made of a transparent, temperature-sensitive hydrogel, which allows it to change color in different environments. According to a video seen by the South China Morning Post, when researchers immerse the robot worm in a glass of water at room temperature, it becomes almost invisible. In the end, the device can also be used for military purposes. “We only hope that this day will never come … Our goal is not to develop a biological weapon but the opposite,” Tiantian told the South China Morning Post.

In addition, in order to introduce robotic worms into someone else’s brain against their will, someone would have to build a powerful electric field generator with an effective long-term range, she explained. Finally, it would also be very complicated to send the machine to a specific location without the cooperation of the person where it would be deployed. This person must remain perfectly still while the robot is moving in his body, remembers the researcher. It would be difficult to accomplish but not impossible.


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