Fantastic Voyage II: Blood vessel microscopic 'submarine' makes sci-fi film a reality

It was the flight of fancy behind the Raquel Welch science fiction film Fantastic Voyage.

More than 40 years on, the concept of a microscopic ‘submarine’ that can swim through narrow blood vessels and help save a patient’s life has moved closer to reality.

Scientists have designed one of the world’s tiniest motors, just a quarter of a millimetre wide, which they believe will be powerful enough to drive a tiny robot around the body and even into the delicate structures of the brains of stroke victims.

Equipped with a camera, the remote-controlled device could send vital pictures back to the surgeon, remove body tissue for a biopsy or deliver drugs to where they are needed most.

In Fantastic Voyage a submarine called Proteus was miniaturised, complete with its crew of doctors, and injected into a man’s bloodstream to remove a clot in his brain.

The designers behind the new motor, which is less than the width of two human hairs, have named their creation Proteus in a nod to the Oscar-winning film made in 1966.

So far it has succeeded in swimming through human blood in the laboratory, but scientists hope it could also power its way up the narrow arteries of the brain.

Strong enough to swim against the blood’s flow, the micro motor harnesses piezoelectricity – the same kind of energy used in gas lighters.

Instead of using a propeller, it has a tail less than a millimetre long which swishes thousands of times a second in a motion modelled on the food poisoning bug E coli which uses a tail, or flagella, to move about.

In conventional keyhole surgery, catheter tubes inserted into the body can cause serious, and even fatal, damage if they puncture narrow arteries.

The microscopic submarine in scene from the movie Fantastic Voyage

But the new motor could easily guide cameras, drugs and needles through the narrowest arteries, according to the researchers from Melbourne’s Monash University who developed it.

Professor James Friend said of his invention: ‘It is less fragile, simpler to control and approximately 70 per cent smaller than the smallest design produced so far.

‘Our hope is that it can be used to save people’s lives because it will be able to reach parts of the body that surgeons cannot currently reach.

‘Unfortunately, pushing a catheter into the body can rupture a blood vessel and can cause the patient to die. Using the Proteus would be a much safer way of carrying out the procedure. It is very exciting to think what could be done.’

Professor Friend, whose work is detailed in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, said the laboratory tests had proved it can work.

The next stage will be to get permission for further experiments using animals, but final approval for use in humans could be years away.

A spokesman for the Institute of Physics in London said: ‘Remote-controlled miniature robots small enough to swim up arteries could save lives by reaching parts of the body, like a stroke-damaged cranial artery, that catheters have previously been unable to reach.

‘With the right sensor equipment attached to the motor the surgeon’s view of, for example, a troubled artery can be enhanced and the ability to work remotely also increases the surgeon’s dexterity.’

See the video of the micro-sub here...

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