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UCLA researchers develop magnetized robots capable of performing medical tasks

(Emily Dembinski/Daily Bruin)

By Sarah Nelson

March 16, 2020 11:28 p.m.

UCLA researchers have developed an automated, robotic framework that can perform an array of medical tasks previously done by humans.

The microscale technology, which can perform blood processing, clinical work-ups, diagnostic testing, biomedical assays, sequence genetic material, and assist in the manufacture and development of pharmaceutical drugs, would eliminate the need for human contact and the risk of exposure to pathogens and chemical mutagens, which are critically harmful to an individual’s health.

The technology harnesses electromagnetic induction to create streamlined automation with applications in biological and health sciences, according to a study published Feb. 26 in Science Robotics.

This mechanization comes in the form of circular, magnetized robots, called ferrobots. The ferrobots can either work independently or communicate with each other to perform tasks on small liquid droplets, which include droplet sorting, dispensing, generation, merging and filtration.

They are also able to move in three dimensional space, allowing for a high degree of specification and production, according to the study.

The ferrobots, which are placed on a notecard-sized chip, are only 2 millimeters across. Using electromagnetic tiles in the chip, the bots can be precisely controlled to perform the droplet-related tasks, as well as multidirectional movements.

Since the tiles generate a magnetic field that can move the droplets, the ferrobots can perform tasks without contact, said Sam Emaminejad, a senior author of the study and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCLA.

The ferrobots can complete a range of designated movements and jobs at a rate of 10 centimeters per second, complete over 10,000 cycles and operate for over 24 hours, according to the study.

“Because of the robustness of the mechanism, we started thinking about how we could apply it to biomedical applications in the microfluidic field, such as in droplet generation, filtration, dispensing and sequential optical sensing,” said Haisong Lin, a co-lead author and graduate student at UCLA.

These functions are critical in performing biological assays, which mark specific amounts of genetic material in a given sample, Emaminejad said.

Another advantage to the ferrobots is their ability to carry out calibrated diagnostics. The technology is able to accurately calibrate measurements for error, based on known measurements, and can also normalize readings with these preknown measurements to obtain highly accurate results.

Using this technology, researchers can generate accurate data on millions of compounds, including the biomarkers of debilitating diseases such as cancer, sepsis and multiorgan dysfunction, in a rapid, streamlined setting, Emaminejad said.

The engineers were able to show they could adjust the ferrobots to quantify levels of a class of enzymes known as matrix metallopeptidases, or MMPS, in human plasma.

MMPS are biomarkers indicative of immunological health, according to the study. A heightened level of MMPS is a tell-tale sign of pathophysiological activity in the body, including the onset of sepsis, activation of the immune response and the breakdown of clots that occur during wound healing.

Emaminejad said the motivation behind the study was to develop a less bulky, more streamlined automation for point of care and research settings, so in the future, an ordinary person without any training can test themselves on a regular basis.

As of today, many biotechnological applications use clunky, outdated robots to assist in human and chemical sample analysis, Emaminejad said.

In terms of production, engineers are improving the field by creating progressive, automated advances that are much more cost effective, simplified and tailored to yield more in less time.

“If you look at the automated information that’s being processed with computers, whether it’s logistics or other data, such as used by, that are really into delivery automation, this was one of the things that drove us,” said Dino Di Carlo, another senior author of the study and a UCLA bioengineering professor. “The same goes for Uber Eats, where you no longer go to the restaurant, your order comes to you. In these cases it is all about the workflow that brings it all together in a truly seamless and user-friendly platform.”

The miniature robots could also help improve the output of many biotechnology, manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies that still use large-scale analytics and big robots, Emaminejad said.

“The cost of a big robot that assembles cars or is used by pharma companies serves its purpose in mass manufacturing, mass output,” Di Carlo said. “But let’s say a research lab might not be able to, and so there’s this aspect of democratizing the ability to do automated biology experiments.”

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Sarah Nelson
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