Chinese team reveals microrobot that could one day bioprint cells in the body

12 Aug 2020

Concept image of microrobots working on human tissue in the body. Image: © Spectral-Design/

In the future, microrobots placed in the body may be able to bioprint healthy cells to repair gastric wounds.

A proof-of-concept put forward by a team of researchers in China may pave the way towards science-fiction-like medicine. In a paper published to Biofabrication, the researchers from Beijing’s Tsinghua University said they have taken the first steps towards a new potential way of treating gastric wounds by using a microrobot.

The microrobot would be combined with another new concept called ‘in-situ in-vivo bioprinting’, whereby the robot would be placed into the body to treat gastric wounds. The robot would print healthy cells that could be applied directly to the wound site to repair the tissue.

The paper’s co-author, Prof Tao Xu, said that injuries to the gastric wall are a common problem in the digestive tract, with about 12pc of the world’s population experiencing such an injury to varying degrees.

“The difficulty is that current bioprinting technology focuses on external sites,” he said.

“Bioprinters are normally quite large, and cannot be applied to inner tissue repair without invasive surgery to give enough room for the printing operation. To overcome this, we developed a microrobot that enters the body via an endoscope to carry out tissue repair inside the body.”

Folds for easier entry

The microrobot was developed from a ‘delta robot’ and is composed of a fixed base, moving platform and three identical kinematic chains. To be as minimally invasive as possible, it can fold itself down when entering the patients’ body, then unfold before beginning the bioprinting operation.

PhD student Wenxiang Zhao said the concept was tested in two different ways, the first of which used a model of a human stomach and mimicked the robot’s insertion process, with help from an endoscope, and the printing process.

“Second, we carried out a bioprinting test in a cell culture dish to test how effective the device was at bioprinting viable cells and repairing wounds,” he said.

“Both tests showed promising results. A 10-day cell culture showed that printed cells remained at a high viability and a steady proliferation, which indicated good biological function of the cells in printed tissue scaffolds.”

Xu said that this study has helped verify the concept as being feasible, but more work needs to be done to bring it to full realisation. This includes reducing the size of the bioprinting platform and developing bio-inks.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic