For decades, robots (namely humanoid) have captivated the imaginations of writers, scientists, and general public. They’ve been subjects of science fiction flicks like the Terminator, I-Robot, and Robocop – just to mention a few. In recent years, the robotics field has undergone significant advancements to make them more autonomous and life-like. It’s at the point where two researchers at the University of Oxford have made a radical proposition – that robots could be built with real human tissue.
According to Scientists Pierre-Alexis Mouthuy and Andrew Carr, the technology is there to make robots “wear” human tendons, muscle, and skin if we’re willing to develop it. The idea behind their proposition is for robots to mold these human tissues as grafts before they’re transplanted onto human patients. They’ve argued that humanoid robots can play a big role in creating tissue grafts that could help people prone to rupturing and injuring their muscles, tendons, and skin like labor workers, athletes, and musicians. While scientists have attempted to engineer and harvest human tissue in the past, they’ve had mixed results. The closest researchers have gotten to the concept Mouthuy and Carr have proposed is the University of Tokyo’s Kenshiro robot, whose actuators make realistic human movements.
Grafting human tissue is a process that relies on bioreactors to grow sheets of cells, which come from machines containing large tanks with soupy concoction of chemicals and nutrients that are necessary for cells to grow on a specialized trellis. Bioreactors currently “fail to mimic the real mechanical environment for cells,” according to Mouthuy and Carr. Muscles and tendons need to be stretched and moved with the skeletons they’re attached to while they grow, which is a component that artificially produced tissue grafts largely lack. Because artificial tissue grafts don’t experience this natural stress when growing, these muscle grafts often have low cell counts and are riddled with several structural issues that keep them from functioning like normal tendons, skin, and muscle.
Mouthuy and Carr are proposing a “humanoid-bioreactor system” that mimics aspects of the human body like framework, dimensions, and mechanics. The grafts would be placed over the robot’s metallic endoskeleton. As the robot interacts with its environment, the tissue grafts would receive the natural strains and twists as if they grew on an actual human body. This new design concept would lead to growing healthy tissue for the exact area on the body the grafts were intended to replace. It would be extremely helpful for “bone-tendon-muscle grafts because failure during healing often occurs at the interface between tissues,” according to Mouthuy and Carr.
The human bioreactor system would be built on top of a humanoid bot with “soft robotics” muscles made from electroactive polymers. Growing human tissue would piggyback on and get the necessary exercise to furbish their natural growth. The bioreactor system would be covered in soft, stretchable sensors to monitor the health of growing tissues, and the robot’s body would be covered in squishy fluid-filled bags of engineered tissue as well. The sensors would send periodic signals that mark specific aspects of the tissue’s progress to an interface that can keep researchers accurately up to date on the progress of tissue growth. This system could enable patients who need tissue somewhere like their tendon, able to interact with the robot that’s wearing their future grafts, and could be the first step towards developing “biohybrid humanoids” with “cell-based actuators.”
Filed Under: M2M (machine to machine)