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MRI Powered Pill-Sized Robot Swims Through Intestines 98

Posted by samzenpus
from the fantastic-voyage dept.
kkleiner writes "Researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel and Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston have collaborated to create a robot that can swim through the intestines. The size of a large pill, the 'microswimmer' is powered by the strong magnetic fields generated by an MRI machine. A tail measuring 20mm x 5mm made of copper and flexible polymer vibrates due to the magnets and propels the little microrobot through the gut."
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MRI Powered Pill-Sized Robot Swims Through Intestines

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  • TSA (Score:5, Funny)

    by bonch (38532) * on Sunday January 15, 2012 @08:45PM (#38709526)

    In other news, the TSA has announced a new screening process involving rubber gloves and an intestinal robot. Americans should be very familiar with the procedure, as one merely has to bend over and take it.

    • They'll do anything to find the newest threat - CUPCAKES!
    • by Synerg1y (2169962)

      Good news! It's a suppository!

    • The TSA is drawing from the knowledge gained by the Navy with their trained dolphin program [wikipedia.org], and starting up their own trained tapeworm program for the traveler's enjoyment.
    • That's not a robot...unless you consider the TSA agent a robot because his supervisor is giving him directions as to how to fist your anus.

    • by lewko (195646)

      When people said the TSA should copy Israel, this probably isn't what they meant...

  • Okay, so... going against every warning label on the side of an MRI machine, we're going to stick something that is metallic, magnetized, and decently sized... and put it in a person, and then put that person in the machine?

    Er, ok.

    • by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @09:00PM (#38709596) Homepage Journal
      I'm no MRI tech, but the hope is that there would be a low-power non-diagnostic routine to accommodate the little swimmer. The technology is only hype anyway, the article states that they tested it in a fish tank and haven't even tested it in a human. I doubt they'll have much success with it meandering successfully through the gut, and of course it will stop dead in its tracks when it hits that big wall of shit*.

      *People who are active tend to defecate only once a day, with either hard pellets or spectacular stool length and thickness depending on how much fiber and coffee they consume.
      • by jo_ham (604554)

        The article suggests that in a 3T machine it could move at several millimetres per minute, and 3T machines are some of the strongest devices typically installed in hospitals for human use (although there are research machines that have much stronger fields).

        It's not going to fly towards the magnet at any rate.

      • Re:The matrix has me (Score:4, Informative)

        by danlip (737336) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @09:56PM (#38709884)

        I think that is already a solved problem for colonoscopies - 24 hours of nothing but clear liquids and jello plus aggressive laxatives, clears you right out.

        • Re:The matrix has me (Score:5, Informative)

          by The Snowman (116231) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @10:36PM (#38710032) Homepage

          I think that is already a solved problem for colonoscopies - 24 hours of nothing but clear liquids and jello plus aggressive laxatives, clears you right out.

          According to my butt doctor, I was "squeaky clean" when I had my colonoscopy. The previous day and a half was unpleasant, but I am grateful I went through with it.

          The weirdest part of having 100% empty intestines was my lack of hunger. I had zero food or "processed food" in my guts, but I felt content like I had just eaten a decent meal but was not stuffed. Then, when I ate my first meal, I was extremely hungry despite having just eaten.

          • Yup. I find that, when I don't eat for a little while, my mind is clear. I have more energy, and I don't feel like a leaky barge with a faulty bilge pump.
            • When I'm ill I tend not to eat for a day or two, and as I'm just starting to recover I get a similar sensation. Not quite a high, but almost. A sort of enhanced perception.

              Religious fasting is quite widespread. I wonder if there's some connection?

      • Re:The matrix has me (Score:4, Interesting)

        by MichaelSmith (789609) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @11:38PM (#38710324) Homepage Journal

        Most of the cost of an MRI is in making the magnetic fields precise enough to be used for imaging. Take away that requirement and I reckon you take away 90% of the price. Whats left is a powerful, controlable magnetic field generator.

        You could have all sorts of fun with that.

      • I'm no MRI tech, but the hope is that there would be a low-power non-diagnostic routine to accommodate the little swimmer.

        No, there's no way to change the field strength in a MRI scanner. The field strength remains constant until the helium is quenched from the scanner (intentionally or accidentally). What is varied is different aspects of the RF pulse used to disrupt the magnetic field and measure the effect on the patient. But the RF is most likely not used in this case.

      • not true about active people and defecation. :P
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Okay, so... going against every warning label on the side of an MRI machine, we're going to stick something that is metallic, magnetized, and decently sized... and put it in a person, and then put that person in the machine?

      Er, ok.

      The summery stated it was copper, not iron. Aluminum is commonly used for MRI safe equipment all the time. There is copper in the coils already anyhow. As long as it's nonferrous it should be fine. My question is, how long does this procedure take? MRI time is expensive, and using it mainly as a power source will have accountants heads exploding. Unless they plan to do this at night during off peak, or times when the magnet is unused. That would make perfect sense as you are paying to keep the scanner cool

      • by DeadCatX2 (950953)

        I'm not sure peak/offpeak hours really matter all that much. The magnet is always on, even if it's not making any sound (the gradient coils). That's why MR techs always do "the macarena" to make sure they don't have any metal before going in, even when it's quiet.

        You probably wouldn't even need the gradient coils to be active for this.

        • I'm not sure peak/offpeak hours really matter all that much. The magnet is always on, even if it's not making any sound (the gradient coils). That's why MR techs always do "the macarena" to make sure they don't have any metal before going in, even when it's quiet.

          You probably wouldn't even need the gradient coils to be active for this.

          Of course it matters. during peak hours the scanner is making money by scanning for billable procedures. It is also costing you money to have the techs present as they need to be paid. Yes the magnet is always on, that's why I said you are paying to keep it cool. The He needs to be kept cold enough to be a super conductor 24/7. I would also guess that running the gradients would be undesirable for this.

    • by jo_ham (604554)

      Copper not going to fly towards the magnet like a ferromagnetic object would.

    • Re:The matrix has me (Score:5, Informative)

      by jbeaupre (752124) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @09:46PM (#38709848)

      Having had to design surgical instruments to operate in in MRI imaging field (not just the magnetic field, but in the patient during a scan), I can answer this.

      The warning on the machine is overly cautious. Almost any material can be put in in MRI, but should be tested. 99% would probably fail (and 99% of those can be predicted to fail). And who wants to test every friggin' thing someone wants to bring into an MRI room. Best just to say "NONE!"

      But for stuff designed for the MRI, it's a different story.

      There are 2 levels of compatibility: MRI safe and MRI compatible.

      MRI safe means it won't hurt anyone. Don't use large pieces of ferro or paramagnetic materials, or the magnet will apply significant force. In other words, just don't use steel (plus a few other exotic alloys). And don't use long, thing wires, or you can create some induction heating from the radio waves (the R stands for resonance ... radio frequency resonance).

      MRI compatible means that the material won't disrupt the imaging field. Either by warping the magnetic field, messing with the radio waves, or creating discontinuities (the FFT algorithms create artifacts from abrupt hydrogen density changes. Air/interface is enough sometimes).

      Turns out polymers are ideal, followed by ceramics. But a small group of diamagnetic metals work pretty well too (but still have dimension and geometry constraints). Gold, silver, lead, and copper work great. BeCu alloys can be used and replace steel.

      A small item (20 mm x 5 mm dia) made of copper should be MRI safe. MRI compatible is something that has to be tested, but copper/polymer objects might not screw with the image too badly if designed well. And it makes great sense to tap the radio field for a little bit of power.

      • Totally off-topic, and it's just a part of your job I suppose, but thanks for making stuff that helps people in such a direct way.
      • Great answer & explanation!!!

        Thanks for making my world a bit easier to understand.

        Way to go - thanks again jbeaupre (752124)!!!!!

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        It sounds like this thing is using the gradients to move, and if it does that (or uses the RF) it's very unlikely it won't create an artifact. If you're going to use a field for locomotion you're going to have to distort that field locally, and that will cause a susceptibility artifact.

        • by jbeaupre (752124)

          Agreed. It's going to be pretty tough to avoid some sort of artifact near the probe. But it sounds like they are doing a visual inspection with the robot, using the MRI for motion and navigation.

          Overall, a pretty clever idea. Future versions are bound to be even better.

          • by ceoyoyo (59147)

            I downloaded the paper... looks like they are harvesting energy from the rf, then creating current in coils to push against the main field. It does produce a healthy artifact. They claim it's MR compatible... perhaps it is in the gut. In the brain it would be a pretty serious artifact. It does make it easy to locate though.

            It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure how practical it is. They haven't tried it in an actual intestine yet, and even if it does work, it has to compete against simpler techniqu

    • I don't know about you, but the last time I tried to pick up copper with a magnet I failed. I am assuming they use the magnetic field to generate a current to move the tail.
    • by 2.7182 (819680)
      That's what I though too when I saw this. The object is basically a bullet. Software crashes and the things decides to go in a straight line to it's home position, you might have a problem.
    • Its a pretty amazing idea. How about inserting a pill with a blade on the front and setting it loose on tumors? Its a creepy idea but dying of cancer is worse.

  • Crohns Disease (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wjcofkc (964165) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @09:00PM (#38709598)
    As someone with a rather severe form of Crohns Disease, this is a godsend (and I'm saying that as an atheist!). I can assure you that anyone with a similarly debilitating intestinal disorder that inevitably leads to cancer feels the same for reasons I will spare you.

    The many "score whatever funnies" that will certainly follow this story will be shamefully ignorant.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ditto, nothing worse than an inconclusive endoscopy. As this thing can probably get places semi-flexible tubes can't, I'll call it a win.

      • Re:Crohns Disease (Score:5, Insightful)

        by EdIII (1114411) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @09:58PM (#38709898)

        I'm not exactly going to call this a "win".

        Let me explain....

        Being older, I had my first colonoscopy this last year. Not eating for a whole day sucked. Drinking the laxative (understatement; it creates an ass volcano of shit), was far worse, but none of the paperwork prepared me for the hospital.

        I was checked in and then wheeled into a "room". Those semi-flexible tubes you refer to look like Borg conduit tubing 3 meters long. Hung up on the wall like tools in a workshop by the dozens. Huge interconnects at either end. I swear I though David Copperfield was going to assist because I don't know how they were going to make those fucking tubes disappear if you know what I mean.

        The anesthesiologist gave me a choice. One of them was full knockout. I asked him if he thought I wanted to remember "that" and pointed to the wall. He understood and gave me something that made me not remember anything. Should of given me that before I saw the room.

        All of that being said......

        This is a pill being shoved up your ass guided by a magnet machine built by companies that have huge insurance premiums and instances of technicians screwing up. How many things could possibly be wrong with that picture?

        I honestly don't which is worse. Scary Borg conduit tubing or robot pill being shoved in your ass controlled by "interesting" and error prone methods.

        Either way, you're getting something shoved up your ass.

        It's not a "win".

        • by cdrpsab (615637)
          RTFA, you swallow it.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          WTF? I've had colitis and had colonoscopies every 6 months. I never needed any kind of sedation and I usually looked at the screen myself fairly interested, because I could see in my own eyes if the illness has spread or if inflammation was gone. There's practically no pain from the procedure if you just relax. Later I was actually diagnosed with colon cancer and had the whole colon removed by surgery. I still have something called sigmoidoscopies every 6 months where they check the pouch they created out o

          • > There's practically no pain from the procedure if you just relax
            Or were the original author of goatse (sorry, I couldn't resist, this is /. after all - and sorry to hear about your medical troubles).
            I hope the procedure was successful - for my part I've just been part of a project developing software to manage the records for a bowel cancer programme in my country, the intent is to can get the slow-growing bowel cancer early. I hope the screening system works (I know our software does :) ).
          • Katie Curic had a colonoscopy on live TV, it can't be that bad.
        • by swalve (1980968)
          The most terrifying thing must be knowing (or not knowing) when the shit volcano is finally over.
          • by SplashMyBandit (1543257) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @11:12PM (#38710176)
            > The most terrifying thing must be knowing (or not knowing) when the shit volcano is finally over.
            Would that be Krapatoa ?
            • Shit volcanoes are one thing, but one time I caught some flu-like virus and had aerosol diarrhea. I had to center and level my ass carefully to avoid getting any on the upper rim of the toilet bowl, the spray was that wide. My "gentleman vegetables" were barely out of the line of fire.

        • by couchslug (175151)

          I had a colonoscopy with minimal anesthesia and watched the process on the monitor for a bit. Interesting, and NO PROBLEM.

          Neither was not eating for a day, or dealing with the laxative.

          Other people reading your post should know there is an alternative, non-crybaby view of the procedure!

          I'd rather have periodic colonoscopy checks than unchecked colon cancer.

          "Scary Borg conduit tubing"...
          The problem was that you find such things "scary". That's YOU, not the equipment. There is no necessity to be afraid of te

          • by EdIII (1114411)

            LOL.

            It's not that I find the equipment scary, it's that I find what and where the equipment is going to be inserted scary. Those things were huge dude. Even the most enthusiastic of homosexuals would probably say, "Oh sweety, I don't think I can do that".

            Some people must be more comfortable than others with objects being shoved up their asses....... guess you're okay with it. Me? Not so much.

            Also, Technology simply means "knowledge that gives rise to ability". Well... I am fairly certain that cave men

    • I know nothing about Crohn's Disease other that what I've recently read from the en.wikipedia.org.

      I had a friend who had Crohn's Disease which he kept a guarded secret. He would host LAN parties at a his house and just
      fun and good times for all. His place was very well kept. I was only a bit curious why he didn't have a room mate or girlfriend, as
      the second unused room was where most of us set up our rigs. No big deal and never questioned.

      A year after I met him he committed suicide because of his pain, and

  • Bugged (Score:2, Informative)

    by yanom (2512780)
    Can't help thinking of the Bug from the Matrix.
  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @09:24PM (#38709746) Homepage

    The article says "A swallowed pill is essentially at the mercy of the movements of the GI tract. Not so with the microswimmer." Another Googled article informs me that the colon undergoes "Segmentation contractions which chop and mix the ingesta; antiperistaltic contractions propagate toward the ileum, and giant migrating contractions... a very intense and prolonged peristaltic contraction which strips an area of large intestine clear of contents." So among other things this little gadget is swimming downstream when the colon is trying to push things upstream. What does it feel like? Tickling? Gas pains?

    When you have a colonoscopy, they give you a sedative (often Midazolam), a pain-killer (often Fentanyl), and sometimes general anesthesia. Of course that's a lot more invasive, but it probably doesn't take as long because the colon is a lot shorter than your whole GI tract. Sometimes the doctor has a little trouble getting a colonscope around a tight corner. Does this thing ever get stuck and how do they deal with it?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Your GI tract is very, very good at what it does - this would not get stuck, barring some sort of severe bowel stricture (secondary to trauma/inflammatory bowel disease) or existing obstruction. The ileocolic junction is the narrowest portion of the GI tract and therefore the most likely location for any blockage, and is accessible by colonoscopy so any (unlikely) blockage could potentially be corrected that way.

      Interesting use of MRI magnets, but...Relative to (existing) capsule endoscopy (which is essent

    • by Baloroth (2370816)

      Does this thing ever get stuck and how do they deal with it?

      A bucketful of laxitives would be my guess.

      More seriously, I imagine that would be a problem they will have to address. TFA is short on details, but it looks like so far they have only gotten to the "powering it" part, meaning this is at least a few years from practical deployment. Navigating the length of the intestine with all it's twists and turns will probably be a nightmare. TFA does mention that they use pills with cameras already, and those pass through just fine (probably not comfortably, but bette

      • Note that for cameras to be any use the tract must still be filled with gas or transparent liquid. Thus purging will still be required even with this device. They'll just pump you full of neutral saline instead of air.

  • But does it tickle?

  • I don't know about you guys, but I have quite a bit of air in my colon.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      on this planet we don't call hydrocarbon gas and sulfides "air". there's probably another thing in there too, and nothing will be "swimming" though that, maybe a miniature tunnel boring tool to get through one of those colon-logs would be more appropriate.

  • by sunderland56 (621843) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @10:33PM (#38710020)
    Good news: the tiny and complex electroics in the robot may be extremely expensive, but they will be reusable.

    Bad news: the robot will be reusable.
  • So out inside is filled with water for this little guy to swim? Anyone see how it can get stuck? Sounds pretty scary to me.

    • > So [our] [insides] [are to be] filled with water for this little guy to swim?

      Neutral saline, anyway. And they'll have to be emptied first, just as for a colonoscopy. The main advantage is that this device can explore the small intestine.

      > Anyone see how it can get stuck?

      No. You can easily pass things larger than this without noticing (unless you have severe obstructions, but you and your physician would know if you did).

  • Since the MRI magnetic field is STATIC, not sure exactly how this little pill is going to move in arbitrary directions. The article isn't sufficiently detailed to answer this question. Unless they are planning to use the RF modulation energy (the same signal that has been known to burn patients in MRI's) -- not sure I'd be happy about that.

    BTW, MRI scans run at least $1000-1500 for a quickie scan. So this technique sounds like it will ring up a bill of at least $5000 or more, for a session.

    I kinda like the
    • by Zakabog (603757)

      The swimmer is POWERED by the MRI not controlled. Basically right now what they've got is a small device that has a tail that vibrates in the strong magnetic field from an MRI machine. That vibration can currently propel the device a few millimeters per second in water. That's all the article seems to say, I guess they intend to eventually put a small receiver controlling some sort of rudders as well as a camera and a small power supply? It doesn't say much about how the device will work if there isn't enou

      • ok, please tell me how to POWER a device by a STATIC magnetic field. All common uses of magnetic fields for power require dynamic magnetic fields.

        I give you a horseshoe magnet. Make it a motor WITHOUT anything else (no electric fields, etc).
        • ok, reading the abstract of the research article provides further clues, though far from a complete explanation... "Here we design and characterize a miniature swimming mechanism that uses the magnetic fields of the MRI for both propulsion and wireless powering of the capsule. Our method uses both the static and the radio frequency (RF) magnetic fields inherently available in MRI to generate a propulsive force." As I suspected, they have to use the RF modulation signal since a static field by itself is not
          • by Zakabog (603757)

            Well basically what I pulled from the article is that the entire thing is vaporware as far as what they think it might eventually do. Getting some little device with no camera and no controllers to swim in a fish tank (not in any particular direction) externally powered by an MRI machine is not at all like having a device that won't cause any harm and can actually do something useful inside a patient.

  • Unionize! (Score:5, Funny)

    by owlnation (858981) on Sunday January 15, 2012 @11:17PM (#38710198)
    Robots get all the shitty jobs!
  • This is genius! Think about possible extensions of this. We could have nanomanchines even going through the body killing disease and not have to worry about powering them.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I worry this can be used as a terrible tool for torture.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    that the copper wire is safe from the thieves

  • You know, there was a movies about something like this where a probe was manned by someone shrunk down, but this way it is manned by remote, which ends up allowing the same type of interaction....I guess we learn from our movies?!?

  • Obligatory 80s reference:
    "Sirius Presents... PLASMANIA! HAHAHAHA"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6krSk2dddaI [youtube.com]

    (it's the bloodstream, not the intestines, but still...)

  • Bravo Slashdot! A post where Israel is mentioned and not a single mentally challenged individual went off on a tin foil hat rant about ZOG, "apartheid" and so on. I'm proud that there was only one blatant Jew hate post.

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