Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU's) Nanorobotics Laboratory has received US$787,000 in funding from the National Institutes of Health, which will be matched by CMU, to develop a squishy robotic capsule that can be controlled while inside the body. The capsule could replace invasive endoscopes by performing camera imaging, drug injection, tissue sampling, and more.

FDA-approved pill cameras have been in use since 2001, but they can only perform imaging, and move through the body naturally. "If you miss something, you cannot go back. If you want to stay at one place longer, you can’t. If you want to do drug delivery or a biopsy, there is no way to do that because the capsule is not controlled.” said Metin Sitti, a professor in mechanical engineering who heads the Nanorobotics lab.

The capsule robot has two magnets on either end, which allows a doctor to move the robot using a magnet on the outside of the body. With careful manipulation, it is possible to twist and spin the robot inside the patient, and even cause it to change shape. “You can put a drug chamber in the middle, and by changing the formation of the capsule, you can inject a drug,” Sitti added. This is made possible by its soft body, which is made out of a flexible elastomer.

Currently the team is experimenting with different prototypes on animals. Future versions will examine how to add some friction to the capsule's surface by adding tiny fibers similar to those developed for Stanford University's gecko-inspired StickyBot, which are strong enough to stick a television to a wall. They're also looking into microgrippers that can grab tissue samples – which could then be collected once the capsule exits the body naturally.

CMU's Nanorobotics lab has been working on various aspects of the capsule robot since around 2005. They expect a working prototype will be completed next year, but say the FDA approval process will likely take another decade.

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