Little robotic tools may be the future of medicine. Tiny bots, called “microrobots,” have the potential to make surgery and cancer therapies much less invasive. These wireless devices may one day provide better access to remote areas of the body, such as inside the brain or heart, through insertion with just the poke of a needle.

Jake Abbott (pictured left), assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing various microrobots that are controlled and moved by magnetic fields. He is designing models of external magnetic fields that wirelessly power and remotely navigate the microrobot inside the body. Abbott, who directs the Telerobotics Lab at the University of Utah, recently received an Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation for this research.

One type of microrobot is a tiny wireless device less than a millimeter in size. It is intended for small organs, such as the eye or prostate, and is remotely propelled by magnetic fields that steer the free-floating device through delicate structures to the problem area. For example, the device might be inserted into an eye through a small needle and magnetically moved to a blood clot at the back of the eye.

“The microrobot would carry a clot-busting drug to break up the clot and then be removed without the need for a suture,” says Abbott. “That is truly minimally invasive.”

Abbott is also making tethered microrobots consisting of a long, thin wire for other medical uses, such as heart ablations. The wire would be snaked into the body through a small catheter and then be deployed and guided magnetically. The end of the wire may have a set of microforceps (or “grippers”) or an electrode array, depending on the medical procedure.

“The tools could clean arteries or remove kidney stones,” says Abbott. “The electrodes could be used to measure electrical signals deep in the brain, or in cochlear implants to stimulate hearing.”

Abbott is now building a prototype of a cochlear implant (an electronic device that stimulates hearing). The device is surgically inserted into the inner ear as it is magnetically guided into place inside the cochlea. An electrode array running along the length of the implant stimulates the nerves to provide hearing to a person who is deaf. “This is a novel, minimally invasive way to implant cochlear devices unlike anything that has ever existed,” he says. The prototype robotic cochlear-implant insertion system designed by Abbott is shown above (middle picture), with a closeup (at bottom).

Microrobots may also deliver targeted drug therapies to the precise area where a cancer growth is, and they may even be used to diagnose disease by taking measurements inside organs. “For decades we have been imagining the day when we could perform minimally invasive medical procedures from inside the body,” he says. “We’re actually getting there.”