Okay, I know what you’re probably thinking. We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. Where are my medical microbots already?
They’re coming, says Brad Nelson, who works in robotics at ETH Zürich. Soon. And they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. In a perspective published in Science today, Nelson and his coauthor Salvador Pané argue that these tiny machines could help deliver drugs exactly where they are needed. That would help minimize toxicity. “So we can use stronger doses and maybe we can rethink the way we treat some of these diseases,” Nelson says.
What makes Nelson optimistic that these technologies are on their way? Some such robots have made their way off the lab bench and into large animals, including pigs. There are at least four startups working on medical microrobots that could travel “untethered” inside the body. One of these, Bionaut, raised $43 million earlier this year to take its therapy into phase 1 trials. It will use the money to develop devices about the size of a pencil tip that are designed to deliver drugs to the site of glioma brain tumors and pierce cysts that block the flow of spinal fluid in the brain, a symptom of a rare childhood disorder called Dandy-Walker syndrome.
“Microrobot” is a catch-all term covering robots that range in size from one micron (about 100th of the width of a human hair) up to a few millimeters in scale. If the robot is really tiny, smaller than a micron, it’s a nanorobot. And while it may be enticing to say “microbot” because it sounds really cool, that’s “more of a Hollywood kind of term,” Nelson says.
Microrobots can be composed of synthetic materials, biological materials (these are called biological robots or biobots), or both (biohybrid robots). Many of them, including the ones that Nelson is developing, move thanks to magnets.
But others can move on their own. Last week a team of researchers from Tufts and Harvard reported that they had turned tracheal cells into biobots. The human trachea has waving cilia on the inside to catch microbes and debris. But these researchers encouraged the tracheal cells to form an organoid with the cilia on the outside. Depending on their shape and cilia coverage, the bots could travel in straight lines, turn circles, or wiggle. And—surprise twist—when the researchers scraped a metal rod across a layer of living neurons growing in a dish, the biobots swarmed the area and triggered new neurons to grow. “It is fascinating and completely unexpected that normal patient tracheal cells, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and encourage neuron growth across a region of damage,” said Michael Levin, an engineer at Tufts who led the work, in a press release. “We’re now looking at how the healing mechanism works, and asking what else these constructs can do.”
The potential usefulness of these microrobots is vast. “A lot of people are thinking about vascular diseases,” Nelson says. Microrobots could be injected and dissolve blood clots in the brain to treat stroke patients. Or they could shore up weak spots in vessels in the brain to prevent them from bursting. They could deliver drugs to specific locations. And then there are weirder applications. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed bots that they hope might one day replace your toothbrush.
Other teams are working on bots that mimic—or are made from—sperm. Researchers have developed cow sperm covered in iron nanoparticles, called IRONSperm, that swim with the help of a rotating magnetic field; the hope is that they can be used for targeted drug delivery. One team from Germany is working on microrobots that help with fertilization by delivering weakly swimming sperm to the egg. Their system even releases drugs to break down the egg’s hard coating. That same group also recently described how microrobots might be used in IVF. In a typical IVF procedure, an egg is fertilized outside the body, and the resulting embryo is transferred to the uterus. The procedure often fails. But if microbots could shuttle the embryo back to the fallopian tube or endometrium, the embryo could develop under more natural conditions, which might improve implantation rates. They envision microrobots guided by magnetic fields that could grip or carry an embryo, release it, and then degrade naturally.
The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush
The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania.
Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.
Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.
A changing way of life
The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.
Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.
One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.
Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.
The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.
The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan
Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.
Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost.
But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.
Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation
—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures
The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.
Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI
A strategic imperative
Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.
According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.
Mapping out a generative AI pathway
One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.
The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.
Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.
All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.
The benefits of third-party experience
Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).
Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”