UCLA Bioengineering leads development of stingray-inspired soft biobot

Jan 11, 2018

By Matthew Chin

UCLA bioengineering professor Ali Khademhosseini has led the development of a tissue-based soft robot that mimics the biomechanics of a stingray. The new technology could lead to advances in bio-inspired robotics, regenerative medicine and medical diagnostics.

The study was published in Advanced Materials.

The simple body design of stingrays, specifically, a flattened body shape and side fins that start at the head and end at the base of their tail, makes them ideal to model bio-electromechanical systems on.

The 10-millimeter long robot is made up of four layers: tissue composed of live heart cells, two distinct types of specialized biomaterials for structural support, and flexible electrodes. Imitating nature, the robotic stingray is even able to “flap” its fins when the electrodes contract the heart cells on the biomaterial scaffold.

“The development of such bioinspired systems could enable future robotics that contain both biological tissues and electronic systems,” Khademhosseini said. “This advancement could be used for medical therapies such as personalized tissue patches to strengthen cardiac muscle tissue for heart attack patients.”

The soft robot research was conducted while Khademhosseini was at Harvard. The lead authors on the research were Su Ryon Shin, an instructor in engineering and medicine at Harvard, and Bianca Migliori, who was a visiting graduate student. Additional authors on the paper included researchers from Politecnico di Torino, in Italy; University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland; and Northeastern University, in Boston.

Khademhosseini joined UCLA on Nov. 1. His lab works across several disciplines, aiming toward the eventual goal of producing tissue-based artificial organs and for developing personalized therapies. A world leader in tissue engineering, Khademhosseini was recently named a Highly Cited Researcher by Thomson Reuters for the fourth year in a row. The distinction is reserved for active researchers with significant influence in their field. He also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011, considered the country’s highest honor for researchers in the early part of their careers.

“I came to UCLA due to its amazing potential for interfacing medicine and engineering,” he said. “The excellence of the engineering and medical schools here, and their close proximity to each other is unique in the country.  As such I believe that there is much opportunity to build interdisciplinary research initiatives that spans different schools to enable the next generation of medical therapies.”

Khademhosseini was previously a professor at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, with faculty appointments at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. At UCLA, he has faculty affiliations with Radiology, in the David Geffen School of Medicine; Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Bioengineering at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and the California NanoSystems Institute where he is an associate director.  He is also the director of the UCLA Center for Minimally Invasive Therapeutics.

The research was supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Additional funding support came from the National Institutes of Health, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research.

Image: Artist’s concept of a stingray soft robot.