Microrobotic agents can form swarms of targeted drug delivery for improved imaging analyses. In a new report now published in Science Advances, Junhui Law and a team of researchers in mechanical and industrial engineering, artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto and the Shanghai University, China, deviated from the typical process of drug therapy to facilitate swarm embolization. The process is a medical technique used to block blood vessels during treatment for thrombosis and arteriovenous malformations. Magnetic particle swarms offer more precise embolization and can maintain swarm integrity inside a targeted region under fluidic flow conditions. Based on experiments in microfluidic channels, ex vivo tissues and in vivo porcine kidneys, Law and the team validated the efficacy of the proposed strategy for selective embolization.
Collective behaviors are ubiquitous in nature, where schools of fish and swarms of insectscan perform complex tasks. Bioengineers are inspired by the collective intelligence in natural swarms to develop a variety of microrobots for diverse applications. In this work, the researchers developed an actuation strategy to integrate magnetic particle swarms to accurately embolize blood flow inside a targeted region for selective embolization in an animal model. The work provided deeper insight and a proof-of-concept study to understand micro-robotic swarm behavior under physiological conditions.
Swarm integrity during flow
The research team achieved selective embolization by generating microrobotic swarms on demand to block blood vessels within a targeted region. They used super-paramagnetic particles with diameters smaller than red and white blood cells for their distribution in blood capillaries. The researchers coated the microparticles in thrombin to convert soluble fibrinogen in blood into fibrin meshes to contain red blood cells with the particles.
The team noted how the swarms split under flow due to weak interactions between the particles. The research team sustained swarm integrity within microfluidic channels under physiologically relevant conditions, including blood vessel branching and blood flow. They then modeled a swarm at a junction to understand the relationships between the branching angle, flow rate and swarm integrity relative to magnetic field strength. While swarms split when the applied magnetic field strength was lower than the calculated value, swarms maintained their integrity at a junction when the applied magnetic field strength was higher than the calculated value.
Selective maintenance of swarm integrity
The scientists sought to develop low magnetic field strength for selective embolization to degrade the integrity of swarms and prevent unintended blockage. They maintained an actuation strategy for sustained swarm integrity inside a targeted region. Despite changing magnetic field distributions, the team maintained high magnetic field strength within the targeted region. Swarms that formed outside the target region encountered low-strength magnetic fields and could not therefore maintain their integrity. The scientists validated the proposed actuation strategy via experiments.
Embolization in microfluidic channels and proof-of-concept studies
The research team tested the effectiveness of using magnetic particle swarms to block blood flow and measured the blood flow rate under different conditions. They ensured visibility under optical microscopy by diluting porcine blood flow in microfluidic channels with 1200 branching angles. The team measured the flow rate by calculating the speed of the red blood cells to understand the average flow rate, which amounted to an average of 84 µm/s. The scientists demonstrated an actuation strategy together with thrombin-coated magnetic particles for selective embolization with minimal unintended blockage beyond a target region. They then conducted proof-of-concept experiments in a porcine blood vessel ex-vivo using microrobotic swarms and imaged a blood vessel with a branching angle of 30 degrees via an ultrasound imaging system. They additionally injected thrombin-coated magnetic particles into the blood vessel at a flow rate of 80 µm/s and noted a brightened spot at the junction indicating the formation of a swarm to confirm the embolization of the blood vessel via the swarm. After ex vivo studies, the team tested the proposed strategy for selective embolization in in vivo porcine kidneys to realize selective embolization.
In this way, Junhui Law and colleagues developed an actuation strategy to regulate magnetic particle swarms for selective embolization. The microrobotic swarms formed via the actuation strategy provide a potential solution for selective embolization in the clinic to prevent complications arising via non-selective embolization mechanisms.