A new class of synthetic materials could revolutionise modern medicine

Better treatment options on the horizon for patients, as researchers engineer materials that could be used to improve medical devices and implants.

Modern medicine is being transformed by ongoing advances in materials and technologies. Metamaterials, which are man-made and possess properties not found in naturally occurring materials, are engineered to carry the properties desired for a particular device. However, once a metamaterial has been produced, its properties are fixed and can’t be modified.

This is something that the EU-funded project ABIOMATER sought to change. Launched in 2015, ABIOMATER has succeeded in designing metamaterials whose properties can be altered remotely using a magnetic field. Using these metamaterials, project partners have developed miniature swimming devices that could open the way to new applications in lab-on-a-chip and microfluidic technology. Their findings are reported in an article published in the journal ‘Physics of Fluids’.

The developed macroscopic swimming devices consist of a hard, ferromagnetic head and a flexible tail, ranging from 1 to 12 mm in length. The tail allows the swimmers to move in a specific direction when a magnetic field is applied. The researchers showed that the swimmers’ speed could be controlled by manipulating the strength (up to 3.5 mT) and frequency (between 30 and 170 Hz) of the external magnetic field.

Revolutionising diagnostics and drug delivery

While similar devices have been made before, this is the first swimmer that could be manufactured on an industrial scale, making cheaper microfluidic chips a possibility in the future. The devices could be used to deliver medication to targeted areas in the body through fluid environments, opening the way to major medical breakthroughs.

“Developing this technology could radically change the way we do medicine. The swimmers could one day be used to direct drugs to the right areas of the body by swimming through blood vessels,” said study co-author Prof. Feodor Ogrin from the University of Exeter in a news item posted on the project coordinator’s website. “We also envisage microscopic versions of the device being used on ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology, where complex procedures normally conducted in a laboratory, such as diagnosing disease, are conducted on a simple chip. This would drastically reduce the time taken before treatments can be implemented, potentially saving lives.”

The research team’s investigation into the above use of the swimming devices focused on whether they could serve as microfluidic pumps embedded into lab-on-a-chip systems. In microfluidics, high-pressure pumps are often needed to move liquids through micro-sized channels. The team showed that the swimmers could be easily modified to acts as pumps, which could be an effective way of manipulating liquids at this scale.

ABIOMATER (Magnetically actuated bio-inspired metamaterials) draws to a close in April 2019. The prototypes developed are expected to find immediate applications in different technological fields, ranging from lab-on-a-chip systems to biomedical implants. Through its achievements, ABIOMATER is laying the foundations for more affordable medicine.

For more information, please see:
ABIOMATER project website

last modification: 2018-12-06

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