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Healing the brain with micro-robots, the fantastic journey of a Californian startup

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Los Angeles (AFP) – Send a miniature robot into the human brain to heal it? What was science fiction a few decades ago could quickly become reality, assures the founder of Bionaut Labs, a Californian startup which plans its first clinical trials in two years.

“The idea of ​​the micro-robot dates from before I was born. One of the most famous examples is a film called + Le Voyage Fantastique +, where a team of scientists embarks on a miniaturized ship to go in the brain and reabsorb a blood clot,” notes Michael Shpigelmacher, CEO of Bionaut Labs.

“What was science fiction in the 1960s is now scientific fact (…) We want to take this old idea and make it a reality,” the 53-year-old scientist told AFP. a tour of the Bionaut Labs research and development center in Los Angeles.

Resulting from a partnership with the prestigious German Max Planck research institute, the startup is experimenting with injectable micro-robots controlled remotely using magnetic energy.

There are other techniques, such as optical or ultrasonic testing, but magnetic energy has the merit of being simple and of not interfering with the human body, explains Mr. Shpigelmacher.

A simulation of how the Bionaut Labs micro-robot (in red) could puncture a cyst (in blue), in Los Angeles, March 17, 2022 Robyn Beck AFP

Unlike an MRI, the device is easily transportable and consumes ten to a hundred times less electricity.

Magnetic coils placed outside the patient’s skull and a computer are enough to remotely guide a micro-robot into the brain, as evidenced by a simulation carried out for AFP.

Cysts and tumors

The sequence begins and, following a trajectory programmed in advance, the robot – a metal cylinder a few millimeters in length to which a powerful neodymium magnet has been integrated – begins to evolve in gel reproducing the brain.

The machine comes to position itself under a pocket filled with a blue liquid then, propelled like a rocket, suddenly pierces it with its pointed end, thus allowing the liquid to flow out of the pocket.

The robot can then be extracted following the same path.

When Bionaut Labs begins its first clinical trials, that’s exactly what should break through cerebrospinal fluid-filled cysts in the brain caused by Dandy-Walker malformation, a rare birth condition affecting children.

These cysts, which can grow to the size of a golf ball, swell and increase brain pressure, causing a host of serious disorders.

Bionaut Labs has already tested its robots in specialized laboratories “on large animals, sheep and pigs. And the data shows that the technology is safe for humans”, assures Michael Shpigelmacher.

“Most brain surgery today is limited to the straight line. If you can’t get to the target in a straight line, you’re stuck,” says Shpigelmacher.

Injectable robots “make it possible to reach otherwise inaccessible targets, following the safest trajectory possible”.

Thanks to these first promising results, the startup has already obtained authorization from the American Medicines Agency (FDA) to experiment with its method for patients suffering from Dandy Walker syndrome but also from malignant glioma, a cancerous brain tumor. considered incurable.

The micro-robot of the start-up Bionaut Labs, in Los Angeles, March 17, 2022
The micro-robot of the start-up Bionaut Labs, in Los Angeles, March 17, 2022 Robyn Beck AFP

In the latter case, the micro-robot will be equipped with a receptacle containing an anti-cancer treatment and will travel to the tumor to deposit its drug load there.

A “surgical strike” where currently available techniques simply bombard the whole body, with a loss of effectiveness and many adverse effects, explains Mr. Shpigelmacher.

“And since we are a robot, we can close the loop and take measurements, take tissue samples,” enthuses the boss of Bionaut Labs, which has around thirty employees and continues to recruit.

Bionaut Labs is already in discussion with partners for the treatment of other diseases affecting the brain, such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy or stroke.

“To my knowledge, we are the first commercial attempt to design” such a product “but I do not think that we will remain alone”, says Michael Shpigelmacher, because academic research is very active with “about fifteen teams” working on topic currently.

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