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6th April 2023

Micro-robot can target, capture, and move individual cells

A new robot just 10 microns across is able to navigate in a physiological environment and perform a variety of tasks, both autonomously or through external control by a human operator.


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Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) have developed a new "hybrid micro-robot" the size of a single biological cell. This can be controlled and moved using two different mechanisms – electric and magnetic.

The tiny, spherical device is able to navigate between different cells in a biological sample, distinguish between different cell types, identify whether they are healthy or dying, and then transport the desired cell for further study, such as genetic analysis. The micro-robot can also transfect a drug and/or gene into the captured targeted single cell.

According to the researchers, the development may help promote research in the important field of 'single cell analysis', as well as find use in medical diagnosis, drug transport and screening, surgery, and environmental protection.

"Developing the robot's ability to move autonomously was inspired by biological micro-swimmers, such as bacteria and sperm cells," explains Gilad Yossifon, Professor in the Micro-Fluidics and Nano-Robotics Laboratory at TAU. "This is an innovative area of research that is developing rapidly, with a wide variety of uses in fields such as medicine and the environment, as well as a research tool."



As a demonstration of the micro-robot's capabilities, Professor Yossifon and his team used it to capture single blood and cancer cells and a single bacterium and showed that it could distinguish between cells with different levels of viability – such as a healthy cell, one damaged by a drug, or a cell dying or undergoing a natural 'suicide' process called apoptosis (such a distinction may be significant, for example, when developing anti-cancer drugs).

After identifying the desired cell, the micro-robot captured it and moved the cell to where it could be further analysed. Another important innovation is the ability of the micro-robot to identify target cells that are unlabelled – it can recognise the type of cell and its condition (such as degree of health) using a built-in sensing mechanism based on the cell's unique electrical properties.

Yossifon says: "Our new development significantly advances the technology in two main aspects: hybrid propulsion and navigation by two different mechanisms – electric and magnetic. In addition, the micro-robot has an improved ability to identify and capture a single cell, without the need for tagging, for local testing or retrieval and transport to an external instrument. This research was carried out on biological samples in the laboratory for in-vitro assays, but the intention is to develop in the future micro-robots that will also work inside the body – for example, as effective drug carriers that can be precisely guided to the target.

"The micro-robots that have operated until now based on an electrical guiding mechanism were not effective in certain environments characterised by relatively high electrical conductivity, such as a physiological environment, where the electric drive is less effective. This is where the complementary magnetic mechanism comes into play, which is very effective regardless of the electrical conductivity of the environment."

Professor Yossifon concludes: "We developed an innovative micro-robot with important capabilities that significantly contribute to the field: hybrid propulsion and navigation through a combination of electric and magnetic fields, as well as the ability to identify, capture, and transport a single cell from place to place in a physiological environment. These capabilities are relevant for a wide variety of applications, as well as for research. Among other things, the technology will support medical diagnosis at the single cell level, introducing drugs or genes into cells, genetic editing, carrying drugs to their destination inside the body, cleaning the environment from polluting particles, drug development, and creating a 'laboratory on a particle' – a microscopic laboratory designed to carry out diagnostics in places accessible only to micro-particles."



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