Tiny bubble-fuelled robots could deliver drugs inside human bodies

Though it might sound terribly Brave New World, the news that researchers at the University of California San Diego have successfully administered drugs in the stomach using minute biodegradable robots is an exciting medical development. The research was conducted successfully on mice, with plans for larger animal study, and eventual trials on humans.

Tiny bubble-fuelled robots could deliver drugs inside human bodies

Conventionally, in order to ensure that antibiotics aren’t destroyed en route to the site of bacterial infection, doctors use proton pump inhibitors to limit the level of gastric acid in the stomach. Long-term use of these devices can lead to debilitating side-effects such as diarrhea, headaches, fatigue, depression and anxiety. Do away with the proton pump inhibitors, and you’re doing away with a slew of unwanted side-effects.

That’s where these tiny robots come in handy. Before you picture bug-eyed Wall-E types marching through your internal organs, I should point out that these micromotors (autonomous vehicles the width of human hair) are in fact tiny magnesium balls coated with medicinal layers. The magnesium reacts with gastric acid, producing bubbles which propel the robot forward. This reaction also minimises the level of gastric acid in the stomach, allowing the antibiotics to operate without being corrupted or destroyed by acidity.

The research team conducted the experiment on mice with bacterial stomach infections over the course of five days, with great success. “The movement itself improves the retention of antibiotics on the stomach lining where the bacteria are concentrated,” said research leader Joseph Wang. The team concluded that their means of administering the drugs was actually more effective than conventional doses of medicine.

If this sounds like fodder for an ill-conceived sci-fi blockbuster – tiny robots mutinying in the human stomach – it shouldn’t; stomach acid in the mice returned to normal levels after a paltry 24 hours, with the micromotors dissolving in gastric acid once they became obsolete.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are on a fantastic voyage,” said Wang. There you have it. Bubble-fuelled, drug-ridden robots. They might sound like Clapham’s prosecco crowd on a Friday night, but they could herald a new age of antibiotic medicine.

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