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Smartbots could one day replace traditional pills during treatment.

In a groundbreaking study, scientists were able to create tiny, 3D-printed fish that act as a vessel for medicine. Under a microscope, the small pods swim around aimlessly while carrying reactive materials.

“We have developed an entirely new method to engineer nature-inspired microscopic swimmers that have complex geometric structures and are smaller than the width of a human hair. With this method, we can easily integrate different functions inside these tiny robotic swimmers for a broad spectrum of applications,” said the co-first author Wei Zhu, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego.

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Smaller Than Your Average Fish

One of the advantages of the microbots is their size. Measuring 120 microns long and 30 microns thick, each fish is smaller than a strand of human hair. This makes them versatile to a number of different environments where space is an issue. To stimulate movement, scientists add tiny particles of platinum during the printing process. When the fish touches peroxide, the reaction causes the tiny vessels to move. Magnets that are drawn to iron oxide found in the head of each unit are applied to steer the school in a general direction.

The study gets interesting when scientists start attaching other materials to the fish. Taking the findings one step further, researchers explained that it would be possible to attach chemicals on the microbots, giving them the ability to seek out and rapidly absorb deadly toxins, like bee venom. The little swimmers glow red as the reactions occur- an indication that they are working.

Medical Applications 

Detoxification is just the beginning for the smart vessels. While the technology is not yet being used in the field, enthusiasts are already raving about its application in surgery, emergencies and lab analysis.

“This method has made it easier for us to test different designs for these microrobots and to test different nanoparticles to insert new functional elements into these tiny structures. It’s my personal hope to further this research to eventually develop surgical microrobots that operate safer and with more precision,” highlighted Jinxing Li, one of the inventors of the microfish.

For children, the microscopic fish could replace pills and increase the efficiency of liquid-based medicine. Instead of injections, doctors may also rely on the lifesaving units to deliver drugs directly to a body part during surgery.

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Experimenting with Shapes

Through microscale continuous optical printing, the scaling method developed by the group, individuals can have a school of fish ready for deployment in seconds. The whole process is digitalized, allowing scientists to experiment with a range of animal configurations and sizes. To do this, the design of the vessel is loaded into the system where it is finalized and pushed to the printer. By utilizing other types of shapes, researchers can maximize the movement of the bots and create task-specific pods.

“With our 3D printing technology, we are not limited to just fish shapes. We can rapidly build microrobots inspired by other biological organisms such as birds,” said Zhu.

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