Bionaut Labs, the start-up of the future of health
The Bionaut micro-robot can travel inside the human body and deliver therapeutic drugs directly to the target area (Bionaut Labs)
To make a miniature robot travel in the human brain to heal it? What was the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago could soon become reality, says the founder of Bionaut Labs, a California start-up that plans to start clinical trials in two years.
“The idea of the micro-robot dates back to before I was born. One of the most famous examples is a movie called “The Fantastic Voyage”, where a team of scientists embark on a miniaturized vessel to go into the brain and resorb a blood clot,” says Michael Shpigelmacher, CEO of Bionaut Labs.
“In your cell phone, you have a bunch of extremely precise, extremely sophisticated, microscopic contraptions that are smaller than a grain of rice,” says the roboticist by training, who came up through artificial intelligence and consumer electronics.
“What was science fiction in the 1960s is now scientific fact (…) We want to take this old idea and make it a reality,” assures the 43-year-old scientist, during a tour of the Bionaut Labs research and development center in Los Angeles. The start-up, which is a partnership with Germany’s prestigious Max Planck research institute, is experimenting with injectable micro-robots that are remotely controlled by magnetic energy.
On the other hand, there are other techniques, such as optical or ultrasound control, but magnetic energy has the merit of being simple and of not producing any interference with the human body, explains Mr. Shpigelmacher. Unlike an MRI, the device is easily transportable and uses 10 to 100 times less electricity. Magnetic coils, placed outside the patient’s skull, and a computer are enough to remotely control a micro-robot in the brain, as shown in a simulation carried out for AFP.
The different sequences are activated and, following a pre-programmed trajectory, the robot – a metallic cylinder of a few millimeters in length to which a powerful neodymium magnet has been integrated – starts to evolve in the gel reproducing the brain. The machine is positioned under a pocket filled with a blue liquid and then, propelled like a rocket, suddenly pierces it with its pointed end, thus allowing the liquid to flow out of the pocket.
At that moment, the robot can be extracted following the same path. Once Bionaut Labs begins its first clinical trials, this is exactly what is expected to break through the fluid-filled cysts in the brain caused by Dandy-Walker malformation, a rare congenital condition affecting children. These cysts, which can grow to the size of a golf ball, swell and increase pressure in the brain, causing a host of serious disorders.
The startup, Bionaut Labs, has already experimented with its robots in specialized laboratories “on large animals, sheep and pigs. And the data shows that the technology is safe for humans,” Michael Shpigelmacher assures. “Today, most brain surgery is limited to the straight line. If you can’t get to the target in a straight line, you’re stuck,” Shpigelmacher says.
The great novelty is that the injectable robots “can reach otherwise inaccessible targets in the safest possible trajectory. Thanks to these promising initial results, the start-up has already obtained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test its method for patients suffering from Dandy Walker syndrome but also from malignant glioma, a cancerous brain tumour considered incurable.
Concerning this last possibility, the micro-robot will be equipped with a receptacle containing an anti-cancer treatment and will go to the tumour to deposit its drug load. A “surgical strike” where currently available techniques simply bombard the entire body, with loss of efficacy and many side effects, Shpigelmacher says.
“And because we’re a robot, we can close the loop and do measurements, take tissue samples,” enthuses the head of Bionaut Labs, which has about 30 employees and is still recruiting. 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 don’t think we’ll be left alone,” says Michael Shpigelmacher, as academic research is very active with “about 15 teams” working on the subject now.