In the future, 3D-printed gelatin robots may revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry, according to researchers at John Hopkins University.
Researchers reported their gelatinous robot invention, called “gelbots,” in Science Robotics on December 14. The gel’s properties allow it to expand and contract due to temperature changes (thermoresponsive hydrogel). The expansion and contraction as well as the design, allow the gelbots to move forward and backward. Although crawling soft robots have been developed previously, the gelbots are the first to be able to propel themselves in a predictable, unilateral motion.
David Gracias, the study’s lead author and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at John Hopkins University, hopes that the soft-robotic technology may be able to traverse the human body and deliver targeted medicine directly to the source of infection.
“It seems very simplistic, but this is an object moving without batteries, without wiring, without an external power supply of any kind—just on the swelling and shrinking of gel,” explained Gracias. “Our study shows how the manipulation of shape, dimensions and patterning of gels can tune morphology to embody a kind of intelligence for locomotion.”
In contrast to most robots, which consist of metal and plastic, the gelbots may have the ability to traverse the interior of the human body without causing trauma to interior organs.
For the moment, the gelbots can only move forward and backward on flat surfaces like an inchworm. However, Gracias recognizes further research is needed to develop different shapes that can travel along varied surfaces. Moreover, Gracias hopes to train the gelbots to respond to biomarkers and chemicals within the human body.
Because the creepy crawly gelbots are produced through 3D printing with water-based materials, they have the potential to be mass-produced at a low cost.
Perhaps most importantly, the gelbots, in theory, could only deliver medicine to a specific region of the body. The technology has the potential to minimize drug doses and mitigate potential side effects, especially in susceptible individuals such as those who are severely obese. As previously reported in The Dallas Express, an alarming increase in both adult and childhood obesity is ravaging the United States.
A 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year from adverse reactions to prescription drugs. Another 2014 meta-analysis claimed that adverse reactions “are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.” By only giving medicine to a specific portion of the body, many side effects may be avoided.
Beyond traversing the inside of the human body, Gracias also sees the potential for these gelbots to be equipped with sensors and cameras to monitor the ocean’s surface and combat pollution.