popular science

scientists made tiny living ‘robots’ from human cells that can move around the body and heal us

Scientists have created tiny biological “robots” from lung (tracheal) cells that they hope could one day travel around our bodies, regenerating damaged tissues and treating diseases.

The robots, called anthrobots, created by a team of scientists from Tufts and Harvard universities, range in size from the width of a human hair to the point of a sharpened pencil and can self-assemble.

Each Anthrobot starts as a single cell, derived from an adult donor.

The cells come from the surface of the trachea and are covered with hairlike projections called cilia that wave back and forth. The cilia help the tracheal cells push out tiny particles that find their way into air passages of the lung.

We all experience the work of ciliated cells when we cough or clear our throats.

The scientists discovered that when they made cilia face outwards, they began moving.

When a cluster of anthrobots, known as a superbot, was placed with damaged neuron cells it was able to stimulate healing and new cell growth.

“The cellular assemblies we construct in the lab can have capabilities that go beyond what they do in the body,” coauthor of the research Michael Levin said.

It is fascinating and completely unexpected that normal patient tracheal cells, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and encourage neuron growth across a region of damage,” Levin said.

“We’re now looking at how the healing mechanism works, and asking what else these constructs can do.”

Researchers don’t yet know how cell regeneration occurs, but believe that the anthrobots could one day be used to clear blocked arteries, repair spinal cords, identify cancer cells, or deliver drugs to specific parts of the body.

Their research, published Thursday in the journal Advanced Science, raises new questions about how our cells assemble and work together.

The work follows from earlier research in the laboratories of Michael Levin, Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology, and Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont, in which they created multicellular biological robots from frog embryo cells called Xenobots, capable of navigating passageways, collecting material, recording information, healing themselves from injury, and even replicating for a few cycles on their own.

Although they’re created from human cells, Levin said the anthrobots didn’t have a full life cycle and so aren’t considered fully-fledged organisms.

“It reminds us that these harsh binary categories that we’ve operated with – is that a robot, is that an animal, is that a machine? – don’t serve us very well. We need to get beyond that,” coauthor of the research Michael Levin told CNN.

While doctors may not be using anthrobots any time soon, they’re another example of advancements in medical technology.

Business Insider has reported that AI holds promise for fast-tracking treatment and personalizing medicine in the near future with the US Food and Drug Administration approving more than 500 medical AI algorithms that can help diagnose and treat patients.

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