• Date: September 08, 2020

One up-and-coming field of technology with the greatest economic growth in the 21st century is robotics, without a shadow of a doubt. The use of this technology in healthcare has already become a reality. From microscopic devices to human-like robots with AI systems that can interact with us in a sophisticated manner, there is a wide range of possible uses in treatment and they allow professionals to perform actions that, until now, were impossible.

Two researchers with entrepreneurial projects supported by the Caixaimpulse programme helped us to get up-to-date on some of the most innovative possibilities that are most likely to come true. Samuel Sánchez, research lecturer at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), designs and tests nanorobots that can detect and recognise cancer cells in bladder tumours. At the Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M), the group headed up by Fernando Fernández is testing out a robot that can perform motor and cognitive rehabilitation that can adapt to patients and interact with them almost like a friend.

Teranobots, more effective and less toxic medication

Nanorobots are ten times smaller than a millimetre. Their minute size allows them to travel inside the human body. Specifically, the ones patented by Samuel Sánchez’s group, teranobots, are able to get about swiftly thanks to the fact that they are self-propelled through urine. “They include an enzyme known as urease which breaks down urea in the urine into ammonium and CO2. The generation of these compounds creates a flow that propels the nanorobot forward,” said Samuel Sánchez.

Furthermore, teranobots are made of mesoporous silicon, a material that can encapsulate different molecules such as medication, receptors or antibodies. For example, antibodies can specifically detect where there is a cancer cell in a bladder tumour, attach itself and release the drug that will halt the progression of the tumour cell.

Sánchez told us about the wide range of possibilities that this therapeutic approach opens up. “We can design the robot in many shapes so that it releases the drug whenever and wherever we want it to. For example, we can introduce the drug into the pores in the silicon so that it is released constantly as it moves. Or, on the other hand, we can add receptors that detect changes in the pH or temperature so that the pores only open up at a specific time.”

The fight against cancer is currently mainly based around the use of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. “The current methods are not as efficient as we would like. We need a rapid method that reduces the secondary effects of the current treatments and is more specific. Nanorobots meet these demands. They only use the dose of the medication that they encapsulate, meaning that there is far less toxicity. What’s more, they're very fast-acting.” Lastly, the researcher told us that the system of nanorobots that they are working on allows for many variants, meaning that it can be used to tackle various types of cancer.

NaoTherapist, the robot with social intelligence

Fernando Fernández and his team work with robots, in this case larger ones that are nearly human-size. NaoTherapist, which is to hit the market in a few months’ time under the commercial name Hircue, is even able to become friends with children, who are its most common kind of patient.

“It’s an autonomous social robot for rehabilitating children with motor problems. It can also be used with adults who need to recover after accidents or even the elderly, to support them in their daily physical activity. The robot helps them to get motivated. It is an additional element for use in therapy.”

One of the main characteristics of NaoTherapist is its AI module, which allows it to adapt to patients and generate far more fluid interactions. Fernández told us more about it: “AI is a competitive element that’s very important when compared with other platforms that have pre-programmed behaviour that basically always act the same, regardless of the human being with whom they are interacting. Our robot, on the other hand, adapts to patients as the rehabilitation sessions continue.”

Furthermore, NaoTherapist uses gamification techniques that allow it to convert exercises into games. “The children aren't aware that they're doing rehabilitation. They’re just playing. They experience the platform as a living element, like a friend.”

To perform this social interaction, the robot records data on the humans with which it interacts. It also collates clinical data which will be transformed into medical reports to help specialists to analyse a patient's development over time and assess the success of the rehabilitation.

More programme highlights

February 28, 2021

With CaixaImpulse, innovation takes aim at rare diseases

Today, on the international Rare Disease Day, we spoke to the leaders of three CaixaImpulse projects that tackle rare diseases.

January 20, 2021

A key to cure brain diseases

We recently interviewed Gate2Brain CEO Meritxell Teixidó to learn more about this innovative technology.

November 10, 2020

Rewriting the genome to cure

In a recent interview, CaixaImpulse project leader Marc Güell tells us some of the secrets behind his project Uni-large.