These tiny robots are made from human cells and could revolutionize medicine.

Artificial robots coursing through human veins might sound like the narrative fodder for a 21st century cinematic reboot of Fantastic Voyage. But a new study from Harvard University biologists demonstrates the real benefits of such a “fantasy” science fiction concept.

These “anthropobots” range in size from 30 to 500 micrometers, or about the width of a human hair to the tip of a sharpened pencil, and they aren’t made of flashing lights and metal like some tiny R2-D2. These biobots were created from cells extracted from the surface of an adult’s trachea. In a new study published in mid-November in the journal Cutting-edge scienceHarvard biologists Mark Levin and his team detail how these advanced biobots could become vital therapeutic devices for repairing damaged neurons and treating disease.

“It is amazing and completely unexpected that normal tracheal cells from patients, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and promote neuronal growth through the damaged area,” Levine said in a press release. “We are now studying how the healing mechanism works and wondering what else these designs can do.”

Antrobots start out as a single cell covered in hair-like cilia. When grown in the lab, scientists encourage these cilia to point outward in the lab-grown organelles. After a few days, the Antrobots begin to use these cilia – with their various shapes, sizes and properties – to move. After 45–60 days, the anthrobots decompose naturally.

In the study, Levine and Harvard doctoral student Gizem Gumuskaya grew a 2D layer of human neurons and simulated a wound by scratching the layer with a thin metal rod. The scientists then filled in the gap with groups called “superbots,” made up of specific anthropobots that were designed to stay close to the simulated wound. Interestingly, these unmodified biobots caused neurons to grow, healing the wound (at least in a 2D laboratory sense).

These Antrobots are an improvement on the previous model developed by Levin and Gumuska called “xenobots”, but they are more advanced and convenient.

“Anthrobots self-assemble on a laboratory plate,” Gumuskaya explains in a press release. “Unlike xenobots, they don’t need tweezers or scalpels to shape them, and we can use adult cells – even from older patients – instead of embryonic ones. It’s completely scalable: we can produce swarms of these robots in parallel, which is a good start to developing a therapeutic tool.”

Healing an artificial wound in the laboratory is just the beginning of the “fantastic journey” of these Antrobots. Further developments could lead to robots that can clear plaque-filled arteries or repair spinal cord injuries. With such a small therapeutic tool, Antrobots could even deliver much-needed drugs to target cells and become a particularly powerful ally in the fight against cancer.

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