People who are old enough will remember the 1966 flick Fantastic Voyage, in which scientists are miniaturized and sent into the body of a man dying of a brain clot. The scientists run a gauntlet of biological obstacles before saving the man’s life.
It may not be long before we’re doing that for real and in one sense, we already are. Given Imaging for example markets Pillcam, a 1.1 cm by 2.6 cm capsule that contains a camera. Once Pillcam has been swallowed, the camera transmits images that can identify causes of GI bleeding, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Pillcam relies on peristaltic contractions to whisk it along, but what if we could design one that moves on its own or rejigger it to perform biopsies?
Paolo Dario and his group in Pisa have already designed prototype robots that have retractable legs which allow the capsule to go where no capsule has gone before (sorry). His and other European teams are also designing modular robots in which individual pieces assemble themselves inside the stomach and the resulting devices can perform surgery “inside-out.”
The big hurdle is powering the devices. While they wait for battery technology to improve, scientists believe the most effective work-around is to build the robots using magnetic material which can be manipulated with magnetic fields produced by MRI machines.