There must be something in the Israeli psyche that draws it towards miniaturization.

For several years, Given Imaging, one of the country’s shining success stories, has been marketing the Pillcam, a camera-in-a-capsule that is swallowed and passes through the esophagus to the small intestine in order to detect early stages of colon cancer. And now, an Israeli research team has found a way to propel an as yet-undeveloped tiny swimming robot through the spinal fluid between the vertebrae in the human body.

What sets the two apart, explains Professor Moshe Shoham of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is the journey through the body. The gastrointestinal system possesses peristalsis, a natural muscular motion that pushes food and waste (as well as the capsule) along, a process that doesn’t exist in other parts of the body.

The question of how to propel a similar kind of device through other cavities of the body is solved by the Technion team led by Shoham who calls the propulsion mechanism they’ve developed a breakthrough, with wide-ranging implications for future early diagnoses of ailments and diseases within the body.

And Shoham should know – he’s been at the forefront of robotics and miniaturization for years.

“I run the robotics lab at the Technion and we focus mainly on medical applications for robotics” he told ISRAEL21c.

Shoham’s lab already has a bona fide success to its credit – a robot for back surgery they developed called the SmartAssist. According to Ori Hadomi, the CEO of the company Shoham founded to commercialize the device, the SmartAssist is a kind of taxi cab for complex surgical procedures. All the surgeon has to do is tell the driver, or in this case the software, where he wants to go and the miniature robotic system will take him there on the shortest possible route, directing him to the precise spot where surgery should take place. The device is currently being used in three hospitals in Israel and 10 in the US, including the prestigious Cleveland Clinic.

Not resting on their laurels, Shoham says the robotics lab continues to have several projects running simultaneously.

“One of the different aspects of medical applications we’re focusing on is the miniaturization of robots to get inside the human body,” he said. “We’re trying to develop systems that can swim inside human cavities.”

The obstacles until now have been two-fold, explained Shoham: reducing the size of the device to be small enough to move through the body, and propelling the mechanism through the body.

“Our development is the propulsion system for the micro robot that will travel through the cavity. The main idea was to make it as miniaturized as possible, and after developing in theory how it would swim through these cavities, we built a prototype.”

According to Shoham, the swimming mechanism they’ve developed is especially suited for movement in water or other clear fluids.

“The first location we’re targeting is the spinal canal – which means the device will travel through the cerebral spinal fluid (CSS) which is clear and similar to water. It doesn’t flow too fast, but it needs propulsion,” he said, adding that because electronic crystals operate the mechanism, its need for electricity is very small.

The end goal of the project is to be able to attach a tiny camera to a robot that will be able to travel inside the spinal column to the target area and broadcast video images or photos.

“Now we have the propulsion system, but we still don’t have the actual payload – whether it’s a camera from images, or a subsystem which would take a biopsy – that’s still in the development stage,” said Shoham, adding that he estimated that in two years the robot his team is working on will be able to take a biopsy and release drugs locally for treatment.

The current development was carried out in the wake of a previous project called “MINOSC” done in the framework of a consortium with the European Union whose purpose was to build an optical fiber endoscope able to enter into the sub-arachnoid space in the spinal cord.

According to Shoham’s doctoral student who participated in the project – Gabi Kosha – a locational sensor the team developed will find the place and depth of the endoscope’s penetration into the spinal column and its angle of movement.

“We are now thinking about the next-generation endoscope that will swim by itself. It will be a swimming robot with two activators – swimming tails – that will push it. It will have an energy source plus a camera in its head that will broadcast the images to the doctor outside,” Kosha said.

The Technion development has already been presented at scientific conferences and aroused great interest, according to Shoham, including the International Conference on Robotics and Information in Europe and the Bio-Rob Conference in Pisa, Italy.

“The conferences and the reactions were very good – because they all realize that this points to a new way to make a miniaturized robot. We now have to develop the payload and to work on further miniaturization,” said Shoham.

“We would like to collaborate with other people in the field that can help. We’re not going to develop the camera by ourselves,” he said, adding that researchers at the Harvard University School of Medicine in Boston have said they have expressed interest in collaborating with the Technion researchers on development and use

While Shoham estimates it will take a few more years to achieve a completed product, he’s very optimistic about the inevitability of tiny robots navigating through our bodies in the near future.

“I believe that in the future there will be micro-robots that will be permanently implanted in our bodies and will be able to navigate to problematic points. This is a step up for micro-penetration into the human body.”

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