Creepy gelatinous robot does ‘the worm’ to deliver medicine throughout the body

baltimore – A creepy crawly robot that travels through the body to cure diseases has been developed by scientists.

The 3D-printed machine is made of gelatin, and Johns Hopkins University researchers say it “worms” when it detects temperature changes. It was inspired by Inchworm, bringing a “kind of intelligence” to the field of soft robotics.

The smart device could replace pills or intravenous injections that can cause life-threatening side effects.

“It sounds very simple, but this is an object that runs without batteries, without wires, without any kind of external power supply — just on the swelling and shrinking of the gel,” said senior author David Gracias, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Johns Hopkins, in a media release.

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“Our study shows how manipulation of the shape, dimensions and patterning of gels can tune morphology to embody a kind of intelligence for dynamics.”

A crawling gelbot
A new gelatinous robot that crawls, changes temperature and is nothing more than a clever design, bringing “a kind of intelligence” to the field of soft robotics. (Credit:
(Aishwarya Pantula/John Hopkins University)

Worm-like robots offer hope of carrying drug payloads directly to tumors, blood clots or infections — leaving healthy tissue alone. Scientists have built robots almost exclusively from solid materials such as metals and plastics, a fundamental barrier to biomedical progress.

Water-based “Jelbot” feels like a sticky snack. Previous research has demonstrated that gels that swell or shrink in response to temperature can create smarter structures. Now, new research shows that they can be strategically used to move robots back and forth on flat surfaces.

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They can also be encouraged to crawl in certain directions with a worm-like wave-like motion. They are cheap and easy to mass produce. Professor Gracias foresees a range of practical future applications, including moving over surfaces through the human body to deliver targeted drugs.

Gel robots are in the hands of researchers.
Gel robots feel like gummy bears. (Credit: Aishwarya Pantula/John Hopkins University)

Unlike swallowing a tablet or injecting a liquid, gelbots will hold onto the drug until it reaches the target to release a high-concentration drug. They can also be marine robots, patrolling and monitoring the ocean surface to combat pollution.

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Professor Gracias plans to train gelbots to crawl in response to a variety of human biomarkers and biochemicals. The study authors also want to test other insect and marine life-inspired shapes and forms and incorporate cameras and sensors into their bodies.

The team hopes the robots will eventually change how doctors examine patients, serving as minimally invasive devices for biomedical diagnosis and treatment.

The robot is described in the journal Science Robotics.

Southwest News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.


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