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Tissue engineering 2.0: Anthrobots that can repair damaged neural tissues

Tissue engineering 2.0: Anthrobots to repair damaged tissues (Image: Canva)

Sat. 2 December 2023

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Scientists have just unveiled a revolutionary breakthrough—Anthrobots— self-assembling tiny robots made from your own cells that can repair damaged neural tissues.

In a groundbreaking development, scientists have engineered miniature robots, referred to as 'anthrobots,' crafted from human cells capable of repairing damaged neural tissue. These anthrobots, created from human tracheal cells, represent a potential stride towards personalized medicine, as stated by Alex Hughes, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who views this research as paving the way for a new era in tissue engineering, dubbed 'tissue engineering 2.0.'

The concept of anthrobots builds upon previous work by developmental biologist Michael Levin and his team at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, who had previously devised tiny robots known as 'xenobots' using embryonic frog cells. However, the limitations of xenobots, derived from non-human cells and requiring manual sculpting, spurred the researchers to innovate further. The result is the development of self-assembling anthrobots, opening new avenues for therapeutic applications using human tissue cultivated in the laboratory, as detailed in their findings published in Advanced Science.

The Tuft University researchers grew spheroids of human tracheal skin cells in a gel for two weeks, after which they removed the clusters and grew them for one week in a less viscous solution. This 2-step treatment caused cilia (tiny hairs on the cells) to move to the outside of the spheroids instead of the inside, where they acted as oars or blades used for propelling boats. Researchers found that the anthrobots thus produced— each containing a few hundred cells — swam in several patterns, such as straight lines, circles, arcs, and also, chaotically.

To evaluate their therapeutic potential, Levin and his colleagues placed multiple anthrobots in a small dish, where they spontaneously fused to form a 'superbot.' Placed on a layer of scratched neural tissue, the superbot demonstrated remarkable healing capabilities, restoring the damaged neurons within three days. This surprising outcome, without the need for genetic modification, marks a significant leap in regenerative medicine, according to Gizem Gumuskaya, a developmental biologist and study co-author at Tufts University.

Looking ahead, the researchers envision applications for anthrobots crafted from an individual's own tissue in tasks such as clearing arteries, breaking up mucus, or drug delivery, all without the need for genetic engineering. By experimenting with different cell types and stimuli, the possibility of developing biobots—robots composed of biological material—emerges, with potential applications in sustainable construction and outer-space exploration. As Levin emphasizes, understanding the capabilities of cell collectives not only informs the development of stand-alone bots but holds promise for advancements in regenerative medicine, including the prospect of limb regeneration.

References:

  1. Gumuskaya G, Srivastava P, Cooper BG, Lesser H, Semegran B, Garnier S, Levin M. Motile Living Biobots Self-Construct from Adult Human Somatic Progenitor Seed Cells. Adv Sci (Weinh). 2023 Nov 30:e2303575. doi: 10.1002/advs.202303575. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 38032125.
  2. Hutson M. Tiny robots made from human cells heal damaged tissue. Nature. 2023 Nov 30. doi: 10.1038/d41586-023-03777-x. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 38036676.

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