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

(AFP) – Send a miniature robot to the human brain to treat it? What a few decades ago was science fiction could quickly become a reality, says the founder of Bionaut Labs, a California startup that plans its first clinical trials in two years.

“The idea for the micro-robot dates back to before I was born. One of the most famous examples is a movie called + Le Voyage Fantastique +, where a team of scientists embark on a miniaturized ship to enter the brain and reabsorb “It’s a blood clot,” said Michael Shpigelmacher, CEO of Bionaut Labs.

“On your mobile phone, you have a lot of extremely accurate and extremely sophisticated microscopic machines that are smaller than a grain of rice,” says this training robot, who has gone through artificial intelligence and consumer electronics. .

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

As a result of a partnership with the prestigious German research institute Max Planck, the startup is experimenting with remotely controlled micro-robots for injection using magnetic energy.

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

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

Magnetic coils placed outside the patient’s skull and a computer are enough to remotely guide a microrobot to the brain, as evidenced by a simulation performed for AFP.

– Cysts and tumors –

The sequence begins and, following a pre-programmed trajectory, the robot – a metal cylinder a few millimeters long to which a powerful neodymium magnet has been integrated – begins to evolve into ice reproducing the brain.

The machine is placed under a pocket full of a blue liquid and then, propelled like a rocket, suddenly pierces it with its pointed end, allowing the liquid to come out of the pocket.

The robot can then be extracted following the same path.

When Bionaut Labs begins its first clinical trials, this is exactly what should break the cysts full of cerebrospinal fluid caused in the brain by Dandy-Walker malformation, a rare congenital disease that affects children.

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

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

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

Injectable robots “allow you to reach otherwise inaccessible targets, following the safest path possible.”

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

In the latter case, the microrobot will be equipped with a receptacle containing an anticancer treatment and will travel to the tumor to deposit its drug load.

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

“And because we’re a robot, we can close the loop and take action, take tissue samples,” said the head of Bionaut Labs, which has about 30 employees and continues to hire.

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

“To my knowledge, this is the first commercial attempt to design such a product, but I don’t think we’ll be left alone,” said Michael Shpigelmacher, “because academic research is very active with” about fifteen teams “working on the subject. currently. .

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