We all know about the old woman who swallowed a spider to catch the fly. But what about swallowing a robot to fight cancer?
That’s what a team of researchers at Imperial College of London are proposing. They’re attempting to create a remote-controlled pill with an onboard camera, an anchor and a vaccine. The idea of sending robots or miniaturized humans under a patient’s skin isn’t new. The 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage” portrayed a team of shrunken doctors in a microscopic space ship racing through a patient’s blood stream to repair brain damage. But now it seems this kind of thing is no longer the preserve of science fiction writers. Okay, so they’re not sending microscopic doctors on an inter-body mission, but a robot is pretty close.
Pills were first decked out with tiny cameras in the early 2000s, and since then they’ve remained fairly passive – i.e. not remote-controlled – and used only for diagnostics. This is where Imperial College is breaking new ground; they’re taking the robotic pill past its exploration-only confines and pushing it into a treatment role.
Tim Constandinou, the project leader, explains that treating cancers and ulcers in the small intestine is currently fraught with complications – mainly because it’s surrounded by other vital organs, which makes it “difficult for doctors to access using conventional surgical methods.” He says the options open to surgeons treating tumors in the small intestine are “invasive,” which increases the recovery time for patients. That’s why he wants to create a pill that could locate the tumor and administer cancer drugs.
“Lots of us have been touched by family members who have suffered through the grueling process of chemotherapy,” says Peter Pendergast of IDC models, an industrial design company based close to London, which is providing help with the manufacturing of the device. “Sometimes people wonder if chemotherapy is worth it, this pill will change that.”
The pill is fitted with a camera, which will stream real-time imagery on a screen in the doctor’s office. The operator would monitor its progress from mouth to gut, keeping an eye out for the patient’s cancer. When the pill is adjacent to the tumor, the doctor would use a computer to remotely instruct it to release its anchor. Once stabilized, the pill is told to deploy a needle and inject the medication (about a one milliliter dose) either into the cancerous tissue or close to it.
Pendergast imagines the device will be “very simple” to control with the use of uncomplicated hardware; it’s not going to require a new supercomputer in every doctor’s office. The researchers at Imperial are creating computer codes, which they send to IDC. The coding instructs a highly sophisticated 3D printer, costing several hundred thousand dollars, to build the smallest sections of the pill. The actual components of the pill are tiny, some as small as 1mm, but the fully constructed robot will be “bigger than an average pill but it’s still going to be swallow-able, and certainly preferable to chemotherapy,” says Pendergast.
When the robotic caplet is made available, it will hold the potential to completely change the treatment of cancers and ulcers buried deep in the body’s vital organs, but that could take time Constandinou warns that they’re “still a long way from getting this to hospital bedsides.” Stephen Woods, a PhD student working on the research project, says that he reckons they’ll have a working prototype within six months or so. At that point the device will likely face a couple of years of animal testing to be followed by clinical trials.