Traditional methods of treating blocked arteries involve working around blockages with stents or expanding the arteries with inflatable probes. An ambitious multinational research project is working on a third approach: Drilling through blocked arteries with corkscrew-shaped nanobots.
Researchers at Drexel University announced today that they will be joining a partnership of 11 institutions worldwide in developing the procedure, which they hope will be deployed in clinical settings within the next four years.
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It works like this: A string of nanoscale iron oxide beads is delivered into the patient's bloodstream via a catheter. The beads, linked together by chemical bonds and magnetic force, function like tiny articulated swimmers. Triggered by an external magnetic field, each individual bead's rotation causes the string to twist like a corkscrew, propelling it through the blood.
By manipulating the external magnetic field, surgeons can actually steer the beads directly into blockages, where the corkscrew action then loosens arterial plaque. The process is based on the bacterium that causes Lyme's Disease, which uses its spiral shape to move around and damage tissue.
MinJun Kim – director of Drexel's Biological Actuation, Sensing & Transport Laboratory (BASTLab) – said that his team's bio-inspired "microswimmers" are biodegradable and won't trigger an immune response in the body. Size and surface properties can be adjusted to deal with various types of arterial occlusion. Once flow is restored in the artery, the microswimmer chains can be dispersed or used to deliver anti-coagulant medication directly to the effected area, to prevent future blockage.
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"Current treatments for chronic total occlusion are only about 60 percent successful," Kim said in press materials accompanying the announcement. "We believe that the method we are developing could be as high as 80-90 percent successful and possibly shorten recovery time."
The Drexel team is the first U.S. representative to join the international initiative, led by the government-funded Korea Evaluation Institute of Industrial Technologies (KEIT), in South Korea.