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Soft Robots with Electronic Skins and Artificial Muscles to Provide Medical Treatment

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 12 Jun 2024

Researchers have developed advanced soft robots that are equipped with electronic skins and artificial muscles, enabling them to detect their environment and modify their actions in real time.

These robots were designed by a team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC, USA) to mimic the cooperative function of muscles and skin in animals, enhancing their efficiency and safety for internal use in the human body. The electronic skin of these robots incorporates a variety of sensing materials such as silver nanowires and conductive polymers embedded in a flexible substrate, mirroring the intricate sensory capabilities of natural skin. Capable of executing complex movements like bending, stretching, and twisting within biological settings, these soft robots are designed to attach smoothly to tissues, minimizing stress and potential harm. Drawing inspiration from natural forms such as starfish and seedpods, they can alter their structures to efficiently carry out diverse tasks. Such versatility makes these sensory soft robots highly adaptable and beneficial for advancing medical diagnostics and therapies. They can morph to conform to organs for improved sensing and treatment, perform ongoing monitoring of internal states such as bladder volume and blood pressure, deliver treatments like electrical stimulation based on live feedback, and be ingested to monitor and treat stomach-related issues.

Image: An image of skin-inspired sensory robot (Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Image: An image of skin-inspired sensory robot (Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

A particular type of ingestible robot, known as a thera-gripper, is designed to stay in the stomach to monitor pH levels and administer medication over prolonged periods, thus enhancing treatment for gastrointestinal disorders. It can also attach to the heart, continuously tracking electrophysiological signals, measuring heart contractions, and providing electrical impulses to help maintain proper heart rhythm. Experiments conducted on mice have proven the thera-gripper’s effectiveness in fulfilling these roles, indicating its potential as an advanced cardiac implant. Additionally, a robotic gripper that can encircle a bladder can assess its volume and deliver electrical pulses to address overactivity, improving both patient care and treatment results. A robotic cuff that wraps around a blood vessel can measure blood pressure accurately and in real time, serving as a non-invasive and precise monitoring tool. The success of these robots in live animal tests points to a bright future for their application in medical settings, potentially transforming the management of chronic conditions and enhancing patient care.

“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,” said Wubin Bai, the principal investigator of the research and an APS assistant professor. “We’re aiming for long-term biocompatibility and stability in dynamic physiological environments.”

Related Links:
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil

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