DEC 08, 2017 08:54 AM PST

Stomach Trouble? Try the 'Robot in a Pill'


Image credit: MIT

Every year, U.S. doctors report about 3,500 cases of swallowed batteries that often necessitate removal via invasive bronchoscopy or endoscopy procedures. Now, scientists say an ingestible “origami robot” can unfold in the stomach and remove foreign objects without complicated surgeries.

"For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system," said Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and co-creator of robot. "It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether."
The origami robot is constructed from a magnet that’s attached to a biocompatible material commonly used in sausage casing: dried pig intestines. This material is folded up into a small capsule that can be easily swallowed. Once inside the stomach, the capsule dissolves and the origami structure unfolds to its functioning robotic form. An external magnet is used to guide the origami robot to pull out button batteries, such as the ones used in watches and hearing aids.
The clever robot was the product of an international collaboration between researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. 
To demonstrate the robot’s capability, the team used a cross-section model of the esophagus and stomach. They simulated the acidic environment of the stomach juice with water and lemon juice.

In this highly simulated test scenario, they showed the device was able to unfurl in the stomach as expected. The robot was then also able to retrieve a button battery from its lodged location on the stomach wall.
The invention still has many more research hurdles to overcome before reaching patients. For example, one crucial question they have to address is how effectively will the robot and foreign object be expelled from the body. This is key to the robot’s success, as otherwise the patient will have just swallowed another foreign magnetic object.
While they’re tweaking the logistics of the origami robot, the team is already looking into other applications for their design. The origami robot can be configured to patch internal wounds and even deliver medicines to targeted sites. In addition, they hope to streamline the design, adding internal sensors on the robot unit itself in order to eliminate the need for external magnets for guidance. "It's really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to healthcare,” said Rus.

Additional source: Forbes

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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