Engineers have developed a flexible robot that enters the rectum to 3D print living cells on damaged organs, eliminating the need for patients to go “under the knife.”
The University of South Wales Sydney team designed the miniature robotic arm to deliver “bioink” made from gelatin, collagen, human cells and other materials directly to the surface of internal organs and tissues.
The proof-of-concept device, known as F3DB, has a highly maneuverable swivel head that ‘prints’ the bioink, attached to the end of the arm, all of which can be controlled externally.
The research team said with further development, and possibly within five to seven years, the technology could be used by medical professionals to access hard-to-reach areas in the body through small skin incisions or natural openings.
The new robotic arm eliminates the need for open surgery
The miniature robotic arm enters the human body through the rectum or mouth
The lead researcher Dr Thanh Nho Do said in a rack: ‘Existing 3D bioprinting techniques require biomaterials to be made outside the body and implanting that into a person usually requires major open field surgery, which increases the risk of infection.
‘Our flexible 3D bioprinter means that biomaterials can be delivered directly into the target tissue or organs using a minimally invasive approach.’
“This system offers the possibility for the accurate reconstruction of three-dimensional wounds in the body, such as injuries to the stomach lining or damage and disease in the large intestine.”
The robot has a three-axis print head mounted on the tip of a soft robotic arm, which consists of soft artificial muscles to move the arm in three directions, similar to desktop 3D printers.
The device is also designed with hydraulics, allowing the arm to bend and rotate.
And the arm can be adjusted to any length and the stiffness is fine-tuned using different types of elastic tubes and fabrics.
The print nozzle can be programmed to print predetermined shapes or operated manually when more complex or indefinite bioprinting is required.
In addition, the team used a machine learning-based controller, which can support the printing process.
To further demonstrate the feasibility of the technology, the UNSW team tested the cell viability of living biomaterial after printing it through their system.
Researchers designed the arm to be adjustable, allowing users to make it as long or stiff as needed
The robotic arm is maneuvered to the damaged tissue and pierces it with the needle attached to the head
The robot dispenses bio-ink made from various materials such as collagen, gelatin and human cells
Experiments showed that the cells were unaffected by the process, and most of them remained alive after printing.
The cells grew over the next seven days, with four times as many cells observed one week after printing.
The engineers also demonstrated how the F3DB could perform several functions as an all-in-one endoscopic surgical instrument.
This, the team says, would be ideal for removing certain cancers, particularly colorectal cancer – the third most common form of cancer death worldwide.
The nozzle of the F3DB print head can be used as an electric scalpel to make the initial mark and then excise cancerous lesions.
The robot has a three-axis print head mounted on the tip of a soft robotic arm.
Engineers showed that the robot can print different shapes to repair the damaged organs or tissues
Water can also be passed through the nozzle to remove blood and excess tissue from the site at the same time.
At the same time, faster healing can be promoted by directly 3D printing biomaterial while the robotic arm is still in place.
The team tested the robot on a pig’s intestine, with promising results.
The ability to perform such multifunctional procedures was demonstrated in the pig gut.
The next stage of development of the system, which has been granted a provisional patent, will be in vivo testing on live animals to demonstrate its practical utility.
The researchers also plan to implement additional features such as an integrated camera and a real-time scanning system to reconstruct the 3D tomography of the body’s moving tissue.