San Francisco The tiny field of nanomedicine is gearing up for big advances along the many fronts where robotics and bioengineering meet, experts said here last week at a workshop on biomedical robotics.
A spate of new funding underscores the confidence in nanomedicine's promise as researchers envision such potential applications as tumor-destroying nanoparticle formulations. In the past year, the European Union and several U.S. government agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and The National Institute for Standards and Technology have put out requests for proposals to create nanomedicine research centers.
"It's the style of the year," said Howard Chizeck, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, who presented a paper on the subject at the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society's annual conference. "There's a convergence coming among robotics, microfabrication and bioengineering. Creating interdisciplinary teams of biologists, physicists, chemists and engineers to pursue this area is one of the primary motivations of these [government] proposals."
Among the envisioned applications, Chizeck said, are specially tagged biochemicals or microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that could track or treat medical ailments with the help of wireless communications, medical imaging and electronics. For instance, a patient could ingest self-assembling nanoparticles that would find early-stage cancers and perhaps even coat and destroy small tumors.
But the tiny devices would have to employ novel tagging and communications techniques, cope with potentially huge communications latencies and find new means for local processing inside the body. And practitioners will have to determine how to ensure the nanoparticles do not harm the body and can be safely removed when their work is done.
"The algorithms, communications and control techniques needed here are not known now, but disruptive technologies could come out of solving these problems," Chizeck said. "All these things will have electronic components. The question is whether they will take the form of MEMS inside the body or control electronics on the outside."
Jorge Cham of the California Institute of Technology discussed his work developing micro-level implants that could align themselves to individual neurons in the brain to help control motor functions in people with neurological disorders. The researcher has already implanted monkeys with devices packing four microelectrodes that move with 1° of freedom to accuracies of up to 50 nanometers.
Cham now is working with researchers who will develop a next-generation implant using MEMS. He also is working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is designing a chip that will amplify, filter and process the neural signals, essentially shrinking what today is "a closetful of electronics" into an implantable device, he said.
In another sign of growing partnerships in this sector, workshop organizers announced they will hold the first joint IEEE conference to bring together the group's separate robotics and biomedical societies. BioRob 2006 is slated for Feb. 20-22, 2006, in Pisa, Italy.
"The time is right for a strategic alliance between robotics and biomedical engineering," said the chairman of the conference, Paolo Dario, professor of biomedical robotics at Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna (Pisa).
Researchers also addressed the somewhat more-conventional field of robot-assisted surgery at the workshop. Gunter Niemeyer of the Stanford Telerobotics Lab said he's working to add force feedback to Intuitive Surgical Inc.'s da Vinci microsurgery systems, now in use at 200 hospitals for prostate and heart surgery.
"This will necessitate adding contact sensors to the system, but there is strong evidence that force feedback will be useful," said Niemeyer. "My guess is it will be at least four to five years before this will appear in production systems."
Gabor Fichtinger, director of engineering at the Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology at Johns Hopkins University, discussed work using robotics to help place needles and microprobes for a variety of prostate, liver, ear and eye ailments. The techniques are expanding the horizon for minimally invasive surgeries that reduce hand tremor for surgeons and shorten recovery time for patients, he said.