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Enhancing Medical Care Through Skin-Like Robotics

Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed novel soft robots that can sense their environment and adjust their movements in real time. These robots are equipped with artificial muscles and electronic skins, as reported in the “Skin-Inspired, Sensory Robots for Electronic Implants” study published in Nature Communications.

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have supported their study, which creates safer and more efficient robots for use inside the body by modeling the interaction between muscles and skin in animals. The e-skin closely mimics the intricate sensory capabilities of human skin by integrating a variety of sensing materials, including conductive polymers and silver nanowires, inside a flexible base.

These soft robots can perform a variety of well-controlled movements, including bending, expanding, and twisting inside biological environments. They are designed to attach to tissues gently, reducing stress and potential damage. Inspired by natural shapes like starfish and seedpods, they can transform their structures to perform different tasks efficiently.

Lin Zhang, Study First Author and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Applied Physical Sciences, North Carolina State University

These characteristics make soft sensory robots extremely versatile and effective in improving medical diagnosis and therapies. They can change shape to fit organs for better sensing and treatment, continuously monitor internal conditions such as bladder volume and blood pressure, provide real-time data-driven treatments such as electrical stimulation, and be swallowed to monitor and treat stomach conditions.

A thera-gripper, an ingestible robot capable of staying in the stomach, can monitor pH levels and distribute drugs over time, enhancing gastrointestinal treatment outcomes. The thera-gripper can also be softly attached to a beating heart, continually monitoring electrophysiological activity, measuring cardiac contraction, and giving electrical stimulation to control heart rhythm.

A robotic gripper that wraps around a person's bladder could evaluate its volume and provide electrical stimulation to treat an overactive bladder, improving patient care and treatment efficacy. A robotic cuff that twists around a blood vessel reliably measures blood pressure in real time, providing a non-invasive and precise monitoring solution.

Zhang added, “Tests on mice have demonstrated the thera-gripper’s capability to perform these functions effectively, showcasing its potential as a next-generation cardiac implant.”

Researchers from the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Biology, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Chemistry, Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering and McAllister Heart Institute, North Carolina State University, and Purdue University's Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering worked with the Bai Lab on the study.

The success of the researchers’ live animal models points to a bright future for these robots in practical medical settings, one that might transform the way chronic diseases are treated and enhance patient outcomes.

This innovative approach to robot design not only broadens the scope of medical devices but also highlights the potential for future advancements in the synergistic interaction between soft implantable robots and biological tissues. We’re aiming for long-term biocompatibility and stability in dynamic physiological environments.

Wubin Bai, Study Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University

Journal Reference:

Zhang, L., et al. (2024) Skin-inspired, sensory robots for electronic implants. Nature Communications. doi:10.1038/s41467-024-48903-z

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