Are robots made from frogs cells the future of healthcare? This scientist thinks so

2022-10-19

Healthcare has been front of mind for most Australians recently. Yet, according to consultancy firm Deloitte, it could be unrecognisable by 2040, thanks to technology.

This isn’t entirely new news.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth became popular for psychology and other medical consultations, while machines performing surgery or patients seeking prescriptions online have become normal.

But what about tiny robots made from living frog cells?

According to Dr Douglas Blackiston, a senior scientist at Tufts University’s Allen Discovery Centre, xenobots could be part of the future of healthcare as they help medical researchers learn more about the human body and disease.

Currently in their third generation, xenobots were created by Dr Blackiston’s team. These self-powered robots are half a millimetre in length, made from living frog cells and replicated through artificial intelligence (AI).

“[Xenobot] is a combination of two words,” Dr Blackiston says. “Xenopus laevis is the frog species that we work with in the lab that translates roughly to ‘strange foot’ … and ‘bot’ from robot,

A xenobot is basically a “micro-biological robot”, he tells ABC RN’s Future Tense.

“It walks around, it swims, it can sense its environment. All of these are features that we programme and shape through the types of experiments that we do in the lab.”

Dr Blackiston says it’s difficult to build a tiny self-powered robot of this design from synthetic materials so they created it out of living cells instead.

They’re also completely biodegradable. ‘[Xenobots] live in water, since they’re made from frog cells – anywhere that an amphibian lives, you can place these. And also, at the end of their lifespan, there’s no garbage left behind.”

How can xenobots be used?

Xenobots have many medical applications, Dr Blackiston says, but mainly they can help scientists to understand how cells function.

This will help them learn more about various human diseases.

For example, xenobots have helped researchers understand more about defects in human lung cells known as “cilia” – hair-like looking cells that are also present in animal cells, Dr Blackiston explains.

“[We’ve] learned a lot about how these [cilia cells] organise and how we can get them to move around and polarise. And it’s actually given us some insight into a number of airway diseases that humans face currently.”

Defects in cilia can result in a range of diseases, including primary ciliary dyskinesia, which affects 1 in every 20,000 people and can lead to infertility, pneumonia and Kartagener syndrome.

Dr Blackiston says applications of xenobot technology are still in their infancy.

“We have a number of [treatments] that we’re investigating with [xenobots], from all sorts of things like being able to seek out a damaged spinal cord and release pro-regenerative compounds, to being able to participate in other parts of regeneration in either mammals or in humans in the future,” he says.

“That’s certainly a ways off …. but that’s definitely something that’s on our radar and the long term goal of the research programme.”

Are xenobots a life form?

Yes and no. Dr Blackiston says that, despite the presence of living cells, xenobots don’t meet the “traditional biological characteristics” of a life form, like being able to produce offspring.

Nevertheless, he defines them as “computer-designed life forms”.

“These are the first life forms that were not produced by natural selection or evolution. They were evolved by a virtual AI in the simulation, then brought to life in the real world.”

But Dr Blackiston says xenobots could potentially evolve in a way that reflects a typical organism, and that there is still a lot to learn about their potential.

“There are a lot of questions about what could [xenobots] be capable of. What type of sensing could they do? What types of behaviours might they have? What sorts of primitive processing might be possible in the system in the future?”

Are there ethical concerns?

Dr Blackiston says there are some potential ethical concerns with xenobots, namely how they increase the presence of AI within health care. He describes this growing interaction as fascinating, frightening and promising.

“We’re just now starting to think about how comfortable are we [in] offloading choices that we make as humans to an AI.”

“And then from the ethical standpoint, you always get into the questions of safety and ethics of creating something that does not exist in nature.

“We as scientists have a pretty tremendously terrible track record, about releasing things into the environment with unforeseen consequences.”

But Dr Blackiston believes xenobot technology is “incredibly benign”. He likens it to other self-creating organisms that exist in nature and have been modified by humans, like yeast.

“If you drink alcohol, those yeast [strains] that have been used to produce your alcohol have been selected and bred and are specific strains. If you’ve eaten bread, and there’s been yeast as well in there, there’s been certainly vast amounts of selection.

“And every crop that we have, and every domesticated animal has been under the purview of some sort of human alteration for thousands of years.”

“Obviously, these can have unforeseen consequences, if the designs are produced in a way that there’s genetic manipulation,” Dr Blackiston admits.

“[But] I can also say that everything that I built in the lab, the genome is exactly the same as a frog.”

ABC News, 19 October 2022
; https://abc.net.au