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Houston Researchers Work to Create Swarms of Tiny Robots to Attack and Remove Blood Clots
November 15, 2019
By
Rashda Khan
UH professor Aaron Becker (red shirt) and Julien Leclerc (next to him, gray UH shirt), a UH Cullen College research associate visit with Houston-area teachers and an undergraduate REU participant in the Robotic Swarm Control Laboratory.
UH professor Aaron Becker (red shirt) and Julien Leclerc (next to him, gray UH shirt), a UH Cullen College research associate visit with Houston-area teachers and an undergraduate REU participant in the Robotic Swarm Control Laboratory.
GRADE camp students visit Dr. Aaron Becker and the UH Robotic Swarm Control Lab on Thursday, June 20, 2019.
GRADE camp students visit Dr. Aaron Becker and the UH Robotic Swarm Control Lab. The blue mass represents the blood clot the participants are trying to break up.
UH engineering professor Aaron Becker shares his knowledge about robots and more with 2019 GRADE Camp participants at the Cullen College of Engineering.
UH engineering professor Aaron Becker shares his knowledge about robots and more with 2019 GRADE Camp participants at the Cullen College of Engineering.

In America pulmonary embolism (PE) causes between 200,000 and 300,000 deaths annually, according to information from the National Institutes of Health. PE is the third highest occurring cardiovascular disease after acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and stroke.

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that gets stuck in the lungs’ arteries, restricting blood flow, decreasing oxygen levels and affecting other organs. Multiple blood clots, or a very large one, can cause life-threating blockages.

Current treatments rely on clot-busting medication, sometimes along with a surgical procedure to alter the clot. However, both these options have been linked to unintended adverse events for patients.

This is where Houston being home to the Texas Medical Center – the world’s largest medical center – and the University of Houston – a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university – come in. Researchers from UH’s Robotic Swarm Control Laboratory and Houston Methodist Hospital are working on an innovative solution.

“Our lab is at the forefront of developing magnetically controlled tiny robots and we have a strong collaborative relationship with the Methodist Research Institute,” said Aaron Becker, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering. “This research is motivated by clinical problems [physicians] deal with.”

The project

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a three-year $752,871 grant for a project titled “CPS: Medium: Collaborative Research: Wireless magnetic millibot blood clot removal and navigation in 3D-printed patient-specific phantoms using Echocardiography.” Becker is the principal investigator (PI) and the UH share of the funding is $515,059.

The project introduces a novel non-invasive method of clot removal. The idea involves using a magnetic field to wirelessly steer tiny (6 millimeters long with a diameter of 2.5 mm), corkscrew-shaped robots through large arteries to break up blood clots in patients.

Each robot – known as a miniature magnetic rotating swimmer (MMRS) – is equipped with a magnet. A set of electromagnets placed around the patient generates a controlled rotating magnetic field that causes the robot to spin, move forward and grind up blood clots. Ultrasound imaging will be used to locate the robots.

Julien Leclerc, a Cullen College research associate specializing in applied electromagnetics, is the UH Co-PI and an integral part of the project.

“I was previously using my knowledge of electromagnetism to study superconductors, now I use the same knowledge…the same mathematical tools and methods to control miniature magnetic swimmers,” Leclerc said.

He is excited to be part of this project.

“It reminded me of an episode of ‘The Magic School Bus’ where the vehicle is miniaturized and navigates inside Ralphie, a student, to find the cause of his sickness,” Leclerc said. “I immediately liked the concept of using magnetic fields to control tetherless miniature robots inside a patient.”

The Houston Methodist co-PIs are Dr. Dipan Shah, chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Imaging, and Mohamad Ghosn (MSBME ’06, Ph.D. BME ’09), a research scientist with the DeBakey Cardiac and Cardiovascular Center.

The technology of magnetic manipulation could potentially improve many surgical procedures – from blood clot removal to eye and brain surgery.

“Using non-invasive miniature magnetic agents could improve patient comfort, reduce the risk of infection and ultimately decrease the cost of medical treatments,” Leclerc said. “My goal is to quickly bring this technology into the clinical realm and allow patients to benefit from this treatment method as soon as possible.”

Outreach efforts

Outreach to broaden participation in computing is a key component of this project. Both Becker and Leclerc spent summer 2019 testing out a curriculum based on the project with high school students.

About 130 Texas students, part of NASA’s High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS) program, spent time in Becker’s lab getting hands-on experience. They were involved in activities like “Build a (3D) catheter and remove a playdough blood clot” and “Magnetic abrasion of clot models.”

They beta-tested both activities with 38 participants of G.R.A.D.E. (Girls Reaching and Demonstrating Excellence) Camp, offered by the Cullen College to introduce girls from 13 to 17 to the wonders of engineering as well as undergraduate participants of the  two Cullen College’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs offered this summer.

The two UH researchers also served as mentors with Methodist Hospital’s 2019 Pumps and Pipes summer program for teachers, which brings real-world science to the classroom by offering Houston-based STEAM industry externships. Becker and Leclerc hosted three local K-12 teachers, each of whom will implement a classroom project related to their externship and in partnership with the Swarm Lab.

“Each program is distinctive, but they are all designed to increase participation of women and people from underrepresented groups in science and engineering,” Becker said. “A lot of them have a domino effect. Campers go home and tell their friends, the teachers reach a variety of children – of different ages and grades, from different socio-economic backgrounds, with different challenges and interests.”

The NSF award period for the project is from September 2019 to August 2022.

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