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Tissue Engineering 2.0: Each "anthrobot" consists of a few hundred cells.

Photo: Gizem Gumuskaya / Tufts University

In the laboratory, researchers have developed tiny robots from cells that are able to repair damaged nerve tissue. The team has produced the "anthrobots" from human trachea cells and hopes that they can be used in personalized medicine in the future, for example to heal wounds. The researchers have published their results in Advanced Science.

The study involved developmental biologist Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Levin had already built his first "living robots" four years ago. At that time, he developed tiny robots from embryonic cells of the African clawed frog. However, the medical applications of these "xenobots" were limited, as they did not originate from human cells and had to be manually shaped into the desired shape.

In the case of the self-organized "Anthrobots" that have now been introduced, this is different. To produce them, the team uses cells that line the trachea of adult humans. The researchers multiplied the cells so that some of them joined together in a spherical shape within two weeks. The spheres, in turn, were immersed in a special bath so that the cells formed cilia on the outside – these then served as tiny rudders for propulsion and movement. Some "anth robots" swam in straight lines, others in circles, and some moved chaotically.

Robots exhibited "surprising behavior"

The work is "astonishing and groundbreaking," Xi "Charlie" Ren told the journal Science. The Carnegie Mellon University tissue engineer was not involved in the research. The living devices, he explained, "opened the way to personalized medicine."

For Falk Tauber, group leader at the Freiburg Center for Interactive Materials and Bioinspired Technologies, the study provides a basis for future efforts to use the biobots for various functions and to produce them in different forms. Tauber, who was not involved in the research, told CNN that the robots exhibited "surprising behavior," especially when they moved over scratches in human neurons and eventually closed them. Since it has been possible to create the bots from the cells of a patient, applications in the laboratory and ultimately also in humans are conceivable.

However, it is still unclear whether and when the "anth robots" will be suitable for widespread use. However, Levin and his team can imagine that "anthrobots" could one day help to administer drugs in a targeted manner, heal tissue, clean arteries, or recognize and fight bacteria. However, numerous other studies are needed for this.

According to Science, the current experiments have been funded in part by a biotech start-up called Astonishing Labs, which plans to use the technology to treat neurological diseases as well as nerve and spinal cord injuries.