Innerspace: When Sci-Fi Becomes Just Plain Sci

Innerspace: When Sci-Fi Becomes Just Plain Sci
Photo: baboon™, Creative Commons, Flickr

Remember the 1987 sci-fi movie Innerspace (with Martin Short, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan), where test-pilot Quaid is miniaturized and travels inside Short’s body?

It was one of the best sci-fi films ever made, if only because it didn’t rely on the shock value of horrible-looking aliens, sudden loud music and stun-zoom camera shots. In fact, it almost escaped the genre by being unabashedly slapstick, thanks to actor/comedian/writer/director Martin Short, who could probably make a pandemic laughable.

In July, Technology Review announced technological updates to a miniaturized robot, about a third of an inch wide and an inch long – sans Quaid of course – that will eventually be able to travel around inside a human body, taking pictures, delivering therapies, and possibly even mending tissue, all without surgery.

This new and improved robo-bug now has legs – three of them, to be exact, which can be remotely opened to press into living tissue inside the intestine, for example. These legs, fitted with adhesion pads, are covered in microscopic hairs like insect feet and use a biocompatible silicone oil to increase traction.

Designers say the updated device would be swallowed like a regular pill and move through the body like any other substance. A doctor, using a Wi-Fi device, would tell the device when to “drop anchor” (extend its legs and attach). After that, similar wireless devices would trigger other functions. Only the swallowing part is hard to swallow; the last time I took a pill that big I nearly choked.

In the future, such devices would not only image problem areas inside the body, but could also be used to take biopsies without invasive surgery, or deliver novel drugs to targeted problem areas like tumors. Researchers have not discussed the “return to base” technology, but most of us can imagine it without too much deliberation.

The device isn’t all that new. Doctors have been using it for several years to image intestines, but up to now the device hasn’t been manageable, and simply goes with the flow. New technologies that would enhance its maneuverability, making it “stick” better and allowing for repeated sticky stops, would extend its medical value enormously. These technologies include “beetlejuice”, an oil secreted by beetle’s feet that makes the hairs stick more firmly, and “gecko feet”, which mimics the directional hairs on that reptile’s appendages which allow it to attach and detach with similar apparent ease, even on glass surfaces.

Metin Seti, head researcher at the NanoRobotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has used the robo-bug on both an animal esophagus and intestine, and confirms that the oil increased adhesion up to 25 percent on a smooth surface (like that found in the intestines). On a rougher surface, such a plaque-coated artery, the “sticky factor” is up to six times greater.

The device’s primary benefit would be tissue biopsies, which are currently performed with laparscopic surgery, which requires a minor incision. Uses could also include cauterizing a burst vein, which now requires a lot of surgical intervention just to identify the leak. A similar device, pioneered in 2006, would "swim" through spinal fluid and discover spinal fractures or deliver medication. Called the Pilcam, it can also travel naturally through the digestive system, or via battery propulsion to other trajectories.

While the idea of these little robots voyaging through the body with their bugjuice and gecko feet doesn’t really freak me out as much as it should, I don’t think I would find as much humor in the situation as Short did. Unless, of course, I was watching the movie while it was happening.

Disclosure: I don’t own medical device stock.

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