Living Robots from Human Cells

by Dr. SS Verma, Department of Physics, S.L.I.E.T.

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Making human robots is a front runner scientific and technological research and making of tiny living human robots from human cells may be a new scientific discovery but our mythology has full such stories of making human similar robots but without any sound base of the scientific or technological concepts. Just to mention that in the famous Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, we always come to know about the creation of human robots by great warriors like Ravana and Meghanath (Inderjit) during the fierce battle in order to dupe the enemy. They are mentioned to create their similar (human robots) to disguise the opponents. The difference was said to be that such robots were without blood i.e. no bleeding used to take place from these similar when they were heart. However, other things were just similar to thereal human. Scientists are also eagerly working on the concept to make human robots and recently significant advances have taken place in this direction.

Recently, scientists have created tiny living robots from human cells that can move around in a lab dish and may one day be able to help heal wounds or damaged tissues. A team at Tufts University and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have dubbed these creations anthrobots. The research builds on earlier work from some of the same scientists, who made the first living robots, or xenobots, from stem cells sourced from embryos of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). People thought that the features of the xenobots relied a lot on the fact that they are embryonic and amphibian. However, scientists say that this has nothing to do with being an embryo. This has nothing to do with being a frog. But, this is a much more general property of living things. While alive, the anthrobots were not full-fledged organisms because they didn’t have a full life cycle. It reminds us that these harsh binary categories that have been operated with: is that a robot, is that an animal, is that a machine? These kinds of things don’t serve us very well and we need to get beyond that.

In present research, the scientists used adult human cells from the trachea, or windpipe, from anonymous donors of different ages and sexes. Researchers zeroed in on this type of cell because they’re relatively easy to access due to work on Covid-19 and lung disease and, more importantly, because of a feature the scientists believed would make the cells capable of motion. The tracheal cells are covered with hair like projections called cilia that wave back and forth. They usually help the tracheal cells push out tiny particles that find their way into air passages of the lungs. Earlier studies had also shown that the cells can form organoids — clumps of cells widely used for research.

Researchers experimented with the chemical composition of the tracheal cells’ growth conditions and found a way to encourage the cilia to face outward on the organoids. Once the right matrix is found, the organoids became mobile after a few days, with the cilia acting a bit like oars. Nothing happened on day one, day two, day four or five, but as biology usually does, around day seven, there was a rapid transition. It was like a blossoming flower. By day seven, the cilia had flipped and were on the outside. In this method, each anthrobot grows from a single cell. It’s this self-assembly that makes them unique. Biological robots have been made by other scientists, but they were constructed by hand by making a mold and seeding cells to live on top of it. The anthrobots the team created weren’t identical, some were spherical and fully covered in cilia, while others were shaped more like a football and covered irregularly with cilia. They also moved in different ways — some in straight lines, some in tight circles, while others sat around and wiggled. They survived up to 60 days in laboratory conditions.

The experiments outlined in this latest study are at an early stage, but the goal is to find out whether the anthrobots could have medical applications. To see whether such applications might be possible, researchers examined whether the anthrobots were able to move over human neurons grown in a lab dish that had been “scratched” to mimic damage. They were surprised to see the anthrobots encouraged growth to the damaged region of the neurons, although the researchers don’t yet understand the healing mechanism.  According to researchers, the study provided a baseline for future efforts to use the bio-bots for different functions and make them in different forms. The ability to create these structures from a patient’s own cells suggested diverse applications both in the lab and perhaps ultimately within humans without posing any ethical or safety concerns as they are not made from human embryos. Moreover, these human robots have a very circumscribed environment that they live in, so there’s no possibility that they somehow get out or live outside the lab. They can’t live outside that very specific environment as well as they have a natural life span so after a few weeks, they just seamlessly biodegrade.