US-Israeli start-up hopes to cure brain diseases with micro-robots

Bionaut Labs aims to use robots smaller than a grain of rice to deliver medications exactly where they are needed and minimize the side effects for the body.

 Bionaut Labs micro-robots (photo credit: Bionaut Labs)
Bionaut Labs micro-robots
(photo credit: Bionaut Labs)

When Israeli entrepreneur and robotics expert Michael Shpigelmacher worked for a large consulting firm a few years ago, he was frequently involved in projects with pharmaceutical companies.

“Often, the companies would focus on their drugs whose patent was about to expire and reformulate the way they could be taken, for example from oral to transdermal, hoping that the process would improve their safety and efficacy,” he recalled.

“However, what struck me as very strange was that even if the condition treated was very focal, the treatment would inevitably rely on diffusion in the bloodstream, on systemic delivery.”Such systemic delivery would often involve very heavy side effects.

As someone with a background in physics, Shpigelmacher started to ask himself why the therapy would not target the disease in a more precise way.“For me, this was the big moment when I realized that we should try to build micro-robots to deliver the medicine only where it was needed,” he said, describing the process that eventually led him to establish the med-tech start-up Bionaut Labs.

Founded in 2016, and originally based in Israel, the company started to work with the German research center Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science. Eventually, it relocated to Los Angeles, where it is currently headquartered.“At Bionaut Labs, for the first time in history, we make tiny, remote-controlled micro-robots that move in the body safely and precisely, with a focus on the central nervous system, the brain, and the spine,” Shpigelmacher said.

 Dividing cancer cell (credit: INGIMAGE) Dividing cancer cell (credit: INGIMAGE)

“These micro-robots can be controlled remotely to carry different payloads, specifically drugs, to places that are very hard to reach, for example, into the deep brain, and to deliver those payloads, those therapies, only where they’re needed and nowhere else.”

The technology aims to allow physicians to treat severe conditions aggressively while minimizing side effects.The size of the robots varies between hundreds of microns to a couple of millimeters, that is, the length of a grain of rice or smaller.

Manufactured with rigid and safe materials, the robots feature a strong magnet and are guided to their destination by a device outside the body employing a magnetic field, while a live X-ray video tracks them in real-time.“At the moment, we are talking about the brain and the spine, but other parts of the body could be targeted too,” Shpigelmacher said. “We are planning on expanding their use, for example, to the liver and the eyes after we get the first approvals.”

Currently, the technology has been tested on animals, not yet on humans. Recently, it was fast-tracked by the US Food and Drug Administration to start clinical trials for two conditions: Dandy Walker Syndrome, a rare pediatric neurological disorder; and malignant gliomas, an incurable form of brain cancer.The company is planning on starting the trials in 2023.

“If you look at where the big pharma companies are spending their money, there are so many resources going into treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, brain cancer, and so on, and they have a lot of potentials, but how do you get them to the target? There is no answer to that,” Shpigelmacher said. “This is where we come in.”