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Anthrobots: Scientists create tiny biological robots from human cells

In an amazing development, researchers from Tufts University and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have engineered a new class of tiny biological robots, termed “Anthrobots”. These robots, originating from human tracheal cells, are capable of traversing surfaces and significantly promoting neuronal growth in damaged areas within a laboratory setting.

The genesis of Anthrobots

Anthrobots range in size from the width of a human hair to the tip of a sharpened pencil. Remarkably, these multicellular robots are designed to self-assemble and have demonstrated a pronounced healing effect on other cells.

This innovation serves as the cornerstone for future applications, envisioning the use of patient-derived biobots as innovative tools for disease treatment, regeneration, and healing.

The concept of Anthrobots builds on earlier research by Michael Levin from Tufts University and Josh Bongard from the University of Vermont. Their previous work involved creating “Xenobots” from frog embryo cells. These Xenobots displayed abilities such as navigation, material collection, information recording, self-healing, and limited replication.

Anthrobot functionality

The current study by Levin and PhD student Gizem Gumuskaya reveals the successful creation of bots from adult human cells, sans any genetic modification. These bots have shown capabilities surpassing those of the Xenobots, addressing critical questions about cellular assembly and cooperation in the body, and the potential for cells to be reassembled into different structures for varied functions.

Gumuskaya, with her unique background in architecture, likens the reprogramming of cell interactions to the arrangement of stones and bricks into various architectural structures. She emphasizes the potential of cells to form new multicellular shapes and undertake different tasks.

“We wanted to probe what cells can do besides create default features in the body,” said Gumuskaya, who earned a degree in architecture before coming into biology. “By reprogramming interactions between cells, new multicellular structures can be created, analogous to the way stone and brick can be arranged into different structural elements like walls, archways or columns.” 

From “Xenobot” to “superbot”

Researchers observed that these cells could not only form new shapes but also move across surfaces and stimulate growth in neuron layers damaged by laboratory procedures. The effectiveness of Anthrobots in encouraging neuronal growth, particularly under the clustered assembly known as “superbot”, is a significant finding, though the exact mechanisms are still being explored.

“The cellular assemblies we construct in the lab can have capabilities that go beyond what they do in the body,” said Levin, who also serves as the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts and is an associate faculty member of the Wyss Institute.

“It is fascinating and completely unexpected that normal patient tracheal cells, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and encourage neuron growth across a region of damage,” Levin continued. “We’re now looking at how the healing mechanism works, and asking what else these constructs can do.”

How Anthrobots are made

Utilizing human cells allows for the creation of patient-specific bots, minimizing immune response risks and the need for immunosuppressants. These Anthrobots are biodegradable and safe, with a limited lifespan and strictly laboratory-bound existence, eliminating concerns of external exposure or uncontrolled proliferation.

Each Anthrobot starts as a single cell from an adult donor’s trachea, equipped with cilia that facilitate movement. The researchers developed conditions to maximize this motility, observing various shapes and movement types, marking a significant feature of this biorobotics platform.

Levin envisions adding features to Anthrobots for responsive and functional roles in the body or for engineered tissue construction in laboratories. The team, including Simon Garnier from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has categorized these Anthrobots based on shape and movement, highlighting their significance in bridging the gap between nanotechnology and larger engineered devices.

Potential therapeutic applications

In testing their therapeutic potential, the researchers developed a model involving scratched human neuron layers. The Anthrobots, especially in their “superbot” form, showed remarkable capability in encouraging neural growth and healing wounds.

Contrary to expectations that genetic modifications would be necessary for Anthrobot cells to promote neural growth, unmodified Anthrobots surprisingly triggered significant regrowth. They formed a neuronal bridge as dense as the surrounding healthy cells. In areas without Anthrobots, neurons failed to grow. In the lab’s simplified 2D environment, Anthrobot assemblies efficiently healed live neural tissue.

The researchers suggest that further development of these bots could expand their applications. These include clearing arterial plaque in atherosclerosis patients, repairing damage in the spinal cord or retina, detecting bacteria or cancer cells, and delivering targeted drugs. Theoretically, Anthrobots could aid in tissue healing and deposit pro-regenerative drugs.

Future implications outside of the lab

This opens possibilities for applications in areas like atherosclerosis, spinal cord or retinal nerve damage repair, bacterial or cancer cell recognition, and targeted drug delivery.

Gumuskaya elaborates on the innate abilities of cells to self-assemble into complex structures and perform diverse functions. “The cells can form layers, fold, make spheres, sort and separate themselves by type, fuse together, or even move,” Gumuskaya said.

“Two important differences from inanimate bricks are that cells can communicate with each other and create these structures dynamically, and each cell is programmed with many functions, like movement, secretion of molecules, detection of signals and more. We are just figuring out how to combine these elements to create new biological body plans and functions — different than those found in nature,” Gumuskaya concluded.

This understanding is crucial not only in constructing new biological entities but also in gaining insights into natural body plans and regenerative treatments.

In summary, the creation of Anthrobots marks a pivotal advancement in biomedical technology. It not only illustrates the potential of biotechnology in medical applications but also paves the way for a deeper understanding of human cellular capabilities and their therapeutic applications.

The full study was published in the journal Advanced Science.

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