health | Healing the Brain with Micro-Robots, the fantastical journey of a Californian startup

Send a miniature robot into the human brain to heal it? What was still science fiction a few decades ago could quickly become reality, assures the founder of Bionaut Labs, a Californian startup that plans its first clinical trials in two years.

“The idea of ​​the microrobot dates back to before I was born. One of the most famous examples is a film called Le Voyage Fantastique, in which a team of scientists board a miniaturized ship to enter the brain and pick up a blood clot,” notes Bionaut Labs CEO Michael Shpigelmacher.

“In your phone, you have a bunch of extremely precise, extremely sophisticated microscopic machines that are smaller than a grain of rice,” says the trained roboticist, who went through artificial intelligence and consumer electronics.

“What was science fiction in the 1960s is now scientific fact (…) We want to take this old idea and make it a reality,” the 53-year-old scientist told AFP during a tour of the Bionaut Labs research and development center in Los Angeles.

Born out of a partnership with Germany’s renowned Max Planck Research Institute, the startup is experimenting with injectable micro-robots that are remotely controlled using magnetic energy.

There are other techniques, such as optical or ultrasonic testing, but magnetic energy has the advantage of being simple and not affecting the human body, explains Mr Shpigelmacher.

Unlike an MRI, the device is easy to transport and uses 10 to 100 times less electricity.

Magnetic coils placed outside the patient’s skull and a computer are sufficient to remotely guide a micro-robot into the brain, a simulation performed for AFP shows.

– Cysts and tumors –

The sequence begins and the robot – a metal cylinder a few millimeters long with a powerful neodymium magnet embedded in it – begins to evolve in a gel that mimics the brain, following a pre-programmed trajectory.

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

The robot can then be pulled out the same way.

When Bionaut Labs begins its first clinical trials, that should do just that, rupturing the cerebrospinal fluid-filled cysts caused in the brain by Dandy-Walker malformation, a rare congenital disorder that affects children.

These cysts, which can be the size of a golf ball, swell and increase intracranial pressure, leading to a variety of serious medical conditions.

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

“Most brain surgeries today are limited to the straight line. If you don’t reach the goal in a straight line, you’re stuck,” says Shpigelmacher.

Injectable robots “make it possible to reach otherwise inaccessible targets while following the safest possible trajectory”.

Thanks to these first promising results, the startup has already received approval from the American Medicines Agency (FDA) to experiment with its method for patients suffering from Dandy-Walker syndrome, but also from malignant glioma, a cancerous brain tumor that is considered incurable .

In the latter case, the microrobot is equipped with a canister of cancer drug and drives to the tumor to deliver its drug load.

A “surgical strike” where currently available techniques simply bombard the whole body, with a loss of effectiveness and many side effects, explains Mr. Shpigelmacher.

“And since we are a robot, we can close the circle and carry out measurements, take tissue samples,” enthuses the head of Bionaut Labs, which has around thirty employees and is still recruiting.

Bionaut Labs is already in talks with partners for the treatment of other brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy or stroke.

“As far as I know, we are the first commercial attempt” to design such a product, “but I don’t think we will remain alone,” says Michael Shpigelmacher, because academic research is very active, with “about fifteen teams” currently working on it this topic .

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