Tiny, Injectable Robots Could Be the Future of Brain Treatments
In the 1966 movie "Fantastic Voyage," actress Raquel Welch and her submarine were shrunk to the size of a cell in order to eliminate a blood clot in a scientist's brain. Now, 55 years later, the scenario is becoming closer to reality.
California-based startup Bionaut Labs has developed a nanobot about the size of a grain of rice that's designed to transport medication to the exact location in the body where it's needed. If you think about it, the conventional way to deliver medicine makes little sense: A painkiller affects the entire body instead of just the arm that's hurting, and chemotherapy is flushed through all the veins instead of precisely targeting the tumor.
"Chemotherapy is delivered systemically," Bionaut-founder and CEO Michael Shpigelmacher says. "Often only a small percentage arrives at the location where it is actually needed."
But what if it was possible to send a tiny robot through the body to attack a tumor or deliver a drug at exactly the right location?
Several startups and academic institutes worldwide are working to develop such a solution but Bionaut Labs seems the furthest along in advancing its invention. "You can think of the Bionaut as a tiny screw that moves through the veins as if steered by an invisible screwdriver until it arrives at the tumor," Shpigelmacher explains. Via Zoom, he shares the screen of an X-ray machine in his Culver City lab to demonstrate how the half-transparent, yellowish device winds its way along the spine in the body. The nanobot contains a tiny but powerful magnet. The "invisible screwdriver" is an external magnetic field that rotates that magnet inside the device and gets it to move and change directions.
The current model has a diameter of less than a millimeter. Shpigelmacher's engineers could build the miniature vehicle even smaller but the current size has the advantage of being big enough to see with bare eyes. It can also deliver more medicine than a tinier version. In the Zoom demonstration, the micorobot is injected into the spine, not unlike an epidural, and pulled along the spine through an outside magnet until the Bionaut reaches the brainstem. Depending which organ it needs to reach, it could be inserted elsewhere, for instance through a catheter.
"The hope is that we can develop a vehicle to transport medication deep into the body," says Max Planck scientist Tian Qiu.
Imagine moving a screw through a steak with a magnet — that's essentially how the device works. But of course, the Bionaut is considerably different from an ordinary screw: "At the right location, we give a magnetic signal, and it unloads its medicine package," Shpigelmacher says.
To start, Bionaut Labs wants to use its device to treat Parkinson's disease and brain stem gliomas, a type of cancer that largely affects children and teenagers. About 300 to 400 young people a year are diagnosed with this type of tumor. Radiation and brain surgery risk damaging sensitive brain tissue, and chemotherapy often doesn't work. Most children with these tumors live less than 18 months. A nanobot delivering targeted chemotherapy could be a gamechanger. "These patients really don't have any other hope," Shpigelmacher says.
Of course, the main challenge of the developing such a device is guaranteeing that it's safe. Because tissue is so sensitive, any mistake could risk disastrous results. In recent years, Bionaut has tested its technology in dozens of healthy sheep and pigs with no major adverse effects. Sheep make a good stand-in for humans because their brains and spines are similar to ours.
The Bionaut device is about the size of a grain of rice.
"As the Bionaut moves through brain tissue, it creates a transient track that heals within a few weeks," Shpigelmacher says. The company is hoping to be the first to test a nanobot in humans. In December 2022, it announced that a recent round of funding drew $43.2 million, for a total of 63.2 million, enabling more research and, if all goes smoothly, human clinical trials by early next year.
Once the technique has been perfected, further applications could include addressing other kinds of brain disorders that are considered incurable now, such as Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease. "Microrobots could serve as a bridgehead, opening the gateway to the brain and facilitating precise access of deep brain structure – either to deliver medication, take cell samples or stimulate specific brain regions," Shpigelmacher says.
Robot-assisted hybrid surgery with artificial intelligence is already used in state-of-the-art surgery centers, and many medical experts believe that nanorobotics will be the instrument of the future. In 2016, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of "the world's smallest machines," nano "elevators" and minuscule motors. Since then, the scientific experiments have progressed to the point where applicable devices are moving closer to actually being implemented.
Bionaut's technology was initially developed by a research team lead by Peer Fischer, head of the independent Micro Nano and Molecular Systems Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. Fischer is considered a pioneer in the research of nano systems, which he began at Harvard University more than a decade ago. He and his team are advising Bionaut Labs and have licensed their technology to the company.
"The hope is that we can develop a vehicle to transport medication deep into the body," says Max Planck scientist Tian Qiu, who leads the cooperation with Bionaut Labs. He agrees with Shpigelmacher that the Bionaut's size is perfect for transporting medication loads and is researching potential applications for even smaller nanorobots, especially in the eye, where the tissue is extremely sensitive. "Nanorobots can sneak through very fine tissue without causing damage."
In "Fantastic Voyage," Raquel Welch's adventures inside the body of a dissident scientist let her swim through his veins into his brain, but her shrunken miniature submarine is attacked by antibodies; she has to flee through the nerves into the scientist's eye where she escapes into freedom on a tear drop. In reality, the exit in the lab is much more mundane. The Bionaut simply leaves the body through the same port where it entered. But apart from the dramatization, the "Fantastic Voyage" was almost prophetic, or, as Shpigelmacher says, "Science fiction becomes science reality."
This article was first published by Leaps.org on April 12, 2021.
A single shot — a gene therapy injected into the brain — dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in monkeys that previously drank heavily. If the therapy is safe and effective in people, it might one day be a permanent treatment for alcoholism for people with no other options.
The challenge: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) means a person has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption, even when it is negatively affecting their life, job, or health.
In the U.S., more than 10 percent of people over the age of 12 are estimated to have AUD, and while medications, counseling, or sheer willpower can help some stop drinking, staying sober can be a huge struggle — an estimated 40-60 percent of people relapse at least once.
A team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
The idea: For occasional drinkers, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. Chronic alcohol use, however, causes the brain to produce, and process, less dopamine, and this persistent dopamine deficit has been linked to alcohol relapse.
There is currently no way to reverse the changes in the brain brought about by AUD, but a team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
To find out, they tested it in heavy-drinking monkeys — and the animals’ alcohol consumption dropped by 90% over the course of a year.
How it works: The treatment centers on the protein GDNF (“glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor”), which supports the survival of certain neurons, including ones linked to dopamine.
For the new study, a harmless virus was used to deliver the gene that codes for GDNF into the brains of four monkeys that, when they had the option, drank heavily — the amount of ethanol-infused water they consumed would be equivalent to a person having nine drinks per day.
“We targeted the cell bodies that produce dopamine with this gene to increase dopamine synthesis, thereby replenishing or restoring what chronic drinking has taken away,” said co-lead researcher Kathleen Grant.
To serve as controls, another four heavy-drinking monkeys underwent the same procedure, but with a saline solution delivered instead of the gene therapy.
The results: All of the monkeys had their access to alcohol removed for two months following the surgery. When it was then reintroduced for four weeks, the heavy drinkers consumed 50 percent less compared to the control group.
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
The researchers then took the alcohol away for another four weeks, before giving it back for four. They repeated this cycle for a year, and by the end of it, the treated monkeys’ consumption had fallen by more than 90 percent compared to the controls.
“Drinking went down to almost zero,” said Grant. “For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.”
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
Looking ahead: Dopamine is involved in a lot more than addiction, so more research is needed to not only see if the results translate to people but whether the gene therapy leads to any unwanted changes to mood or behavior.
Because the therapy requires invasive brain surgery and is likely irreversible, it’s unlikely to ever become a common treatment for alcoholism — but it could one day be the only thing standing between people with severe AUD and death.
“[The treatment] would be most appropriate for people who have already shown that all our normal therapeutic approaches do not work for them,” said Grant. “They are likely to create severe harm or kill themselves or others due to their drinking.”
On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”