Scientists have developed tiny groups of human cells that can move on their own—and in a lab experiment, these so-called “anthrobots” inspired sheets of human neurons to repair themselves when damaged.
The researchers hope the collections of cells could one day be used to treat diseases or aid with healing in humans, according to a statement from Tufts University.
This work, recently published in the journal Advanced Science, “is amazing and groundbreaking,” Xi “Charlie” Ren, a biomedical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University who did not contribute to the findings, says to Science’s Elizabeth Pennisi. Ren adds that the creation of anthrobots “opens the way to personalized medicine.”
The study comes on the heels of earlier work from one of its authors, who produced tiny robots by stitching together frog embryo cells. These bots, known as “xenobots,” could assemble themselves, move across surfaces and travel through liquid, according to Scientific American’s Philip Ball.
“Some people thought that the features of the xenobots relied a lot on the fact that they are embryonic and amphibian,” Michael Levin, a co-author of both the old and new work and a biologist at Tufts University, tells CNN’s Katie Hunt. “I don’t think this has anything to do with being an embryo. This has nothing to do with being a frog. I think this is a much more general property of living things.”
Since they’re not made from human cells, xenobots can’t be used to treat humans, writes Nature News’ Matthew Hutson. But the anthrobots in the new study could, theoretically. Each anthrobot started with a single cell from an adult human lung. It then grew into a multicellular biobot after being cultured for two weeks.
These lung cells are covered in hairlike structures called cilia. But at this point in the research, the cilia were growing inside the clumps of cells. So, for the next week, the researchers grew the cells in a solution that prompted the cilia to face outward instead, enabling these structures to move the anthrobots.
Depending on the anthrobots’ shape, they could move in tight loops, travel in straight lines or wiggle in place. Their speed varied as well.
However, some researchers were not surprised that the cells could move around. “I cannot see how these clumps of cells with flailing cilia merit the term ‘bots,’” Jamie Davies, a developmental biologist at the University of Edinburgh who did not contribute to the findings, tells Scientific American.
The researchers also tested how these bots might heal wounds. They mimicked a wound in the lab by scratching a layer of neurons in a dish. Then, they introduced anthrobots to the site of the scratch, and within days, the neurons regrew, bridging the gap created by the wound.
They don’t know how, exactly, the bots could have prompted the nerve cells to heal. But other substances, such as starch and silicon, did not produce the same result in other experiments, writes Science.
Gizem Gumuskaya, a developmental biologist at Tufts University and the paper’s lead author, tells Nature News it was surprising that the bots induced this healing without genetic modification.
The findings show that new structures that might have uses in biomedical settings can be developed without gene editing and without having to design the structures manually, the study authors write.
“Unlike xenobots, [anthrobots] don’t require tweezers or scalpels to give them shape, and we can use adult cells—even cells from elderly patients—instead of embryonic cells,” Gumuskaya says in the statement. “It’s fully scalable—we can produce swarms of these bots in parallel, which is a good start for developing a therapeutic tool.”
“Once we understand what cell collectives are willing and able to do, then we can begin to control that not just for stand-alone bots, but for regenerative medicine,” Levin tells Nature News.