Bringing sci-fi alive: how robots can help us treat diseases

Microscope. Image by Geralt (CC BY 2.0)


Could there be a link between robotics and drug treatments? There is, according to a group of scientists whose research was published in 2022[1]. The innovative collaboration between scientists brought together medicine, biomedical research, and engineering to tackle one of the major challenges faced by the pharmaceutical industry worldwide — the efficacy of drug delivery.

When a drug is administered orally, it has a difficult journey ahead of it before it gets absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches the target treatment area. The challenges faced by the drug include, but are not limited to, the harsh acidic environment of the stomach as well as a layer of mucus protecting the small intestine[2]. This mucus reduces intestinal inflammation and infection, but it also makes it harder for drugs to pass through the intestinal tissue and enter the bloodstream.

Meet RoboCap — a pill-sized, motorised device that can clear this mucus and deliver drugs more efficiently. This gadget can contain any drug, and comes coated in gelatine to make it easier to swallow. Once the ingested RoboCap reaches the stomach, the gelatine layer is eroded by the acidic gastric fluid, and the device carries on its journey until it reaches the small intestine. RoboCap’s mechanism is triggered once it is in an environment with neutral acidity, as is the case in the small intestine. There, the robotic pill vibrates and rotates while being in close contact with the small intestine lining, whisking away the mucus and releasing the drug very close to the intestinal tissue[3].

Shriya S. Srinivasan and colleagues tested RoboCap in the laboratory and in pigs to see how effective it is in a real-life scenario, and found that the device did indeed manage to improve the efficacy of drug absorption. One of the worries with the mucus-clearing method is that removing mucus leaves parts of the intestinal lining without its protective barrier, thus potentially increasing the risk of inflammation and infection. Promisingly, the researchers did not observe any significant changes in inflammation between the control and the small intestinal tissues that were treated with RoboCap in their initial studies2. However, more research is required before the results can be deemed conclusive and RoboCap considered for clinical trials.

Innovations such as RoboCap are a stepping stone for advanced therapies that will keep improving our healthcare. Who knows, maybe what used to be considered sci-fi will become our reality much sooner than we think.






Edited by Hazel Imrie

Copy-edited by Rachel Shannon and Molly Donald


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