April 16, 2012
by Mark Ollig
A submarine called Proteus and its special crew are miniaturized to microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of a critically ill science diplomat in an attempt to remove a blood clot from his brain and save his life.
My brief synopsis describes the 1966 science fiction movie “Fantastic Voyage.”
Today, however, some very interesting real-life science research is being funded by the UK and US.
By 2017, instead of a microscopic submarine and crew, a “micro-robot” may be used to maneuver within a human body . . . in a new “fantastic voyage.”
This micro-robot would be able to check for tumors, blood clots, and recognize the chemical signatures of certain diseases.
Made up of electronic and certain biological parts, this micro-robot is called Cyberplasm.
Cyberplasm will use a combination of cutting-edge microelectronics, and the latest in “biomimicry,” which emulates designs used in nature.
I visited the website, biomimicry.net. It describes biomimicry as the study of how organisms and nature have evolved and adapted to their respective environments over the last 3.8 billion years.
The idea behind biomimicry is to learn about the solutions to problems nature has solved over time and then apply or “mimic” those solutions, creatively, for the benefit of all humankind.
Biomimicry is the application of nature’s learned technology.
The knowledge learned from biomimicry is being used by many Fortune 500 companies, and even NASA.
Designers and engineers are employing the benefits of biomimicry for use in projects ranging from creating new types of carpets, to customized planning specifications for a city.
Biomimicry will assist in the making of a more efficient and sustainable world for all of us to live in.
Tiny mammalian cells (isolated mammal cells bounded by a plasma membrane) will be used by the researchers to create an “electronic nervous system” of sorts, within the Cyberplasm.
This electronic nervous system will include working sensors which will emulate an eye and nose.
“Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore, to collect data on what’s going on around it,” said bioengineer Dr. Daniel Frankel of Newcastle University, who is heading the UK portion of this research.
Artificial muscles in the Cyberplasm will cause it to operate in a forward moving manner by using energy obtained from the glucose inside a human’s bloodstream.
Sensors inside the Cyberplasm’s electronic “brain” will be equipped with intelligent microchips. This brain will send messages to the artificial muscles, causing them to contract and relax, allowing the Cyberplasm to maneuver.
The engineering to be used to navigate the Cyberplasm forward inside a human body includes having the glucose-powered, artificial muscles responding to light and chemical stimuli, the way other biological systems do.
It seems like the scientists and engineers are trying to imitate a living creature.
This is true. They are attempting to mimic the sea lamprey, which is a worm-like parasite found living mostly in the Atlantic Ocean along the western coast of Europe, and the eastern coast of North America.
A sea lamprey has a simple nervous system. It is very aware of, and is quick to respond to, the environment it lives in.
Researchers would like to first create a 1-centimeter in length, prototype Cyberplasm micro-robot.
A much smaller, nano-scale- sized Cyberplasm micro-robot would be built sometime after this.
A working Cyberplasm is not something we will have to wait too long to see.
“We’re currently developing and testing Cyberplasm’s individual components,” said Dr. Frankel. He went on to say, “We hope to get to the assembly stage within a couple of years. We believe Cyberplasm could start being used in real-world situations within five years.”
A photo of the Cyberplasm micro-robot design shows a thin, cylinder-like hydrogel/polymer backbone, with attached synthetic muscles, electronic nervous system, and synthetic motors.
Dr. Frankel’s personal website describes this cell/machine interface as “a swimming biohybrid robot.” The website information states they are in the process of developing methods for encouraging cells to communicate with the electronics.
It is not said how this micro-robot would be placed inside a human body, but if we refer back to the movie “Fantastic Voyage,” Cyberplasm would probably be injected into the bloodstream.
While entertaining this thought, I am not so sure how comfortable I would be in having a micro-robot called Cyberplasm, traversing throughout the interior of my body.
What if this Cyberplasm’s brain chip malfunctioned and it changed course towards my cerebrum in an attempt to take control of me?
Suddenly, I find myself thinking about a Star Trek movie where humans are assimilated and turned into Borg’s.
Of course, being assimilated by Cyberplasm is highly unlikely; however, experiencing this situation would no doubt provide yours truly with some interesting material for future columns.
On a serious note, it is said the Cyberplasm research may lead to the use of advanced prosthetic technologies. Living muscle tissue could be engineered to contract and relax as a response to light wave stimulation or electronic signals.
Research funding for the micro-robotic Cyberplasm technology is being provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK, and the National Science Foundation in the US.
Telecommunications and all things tech has been a well-traveled road for me.
I enjoy learning what is new in technology and sharing it with others who enjoy reading my particular slant on it via this blog. I am also a freelance columnist for my hometown's print and digital newspaper. - Mark Ollig