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In case you haven’t noticed, robots are everywhere. Businesses now use robots to facilitate logistics, communications, and much, much more. At the same time, stem cell research is also expanding dramatically. New health and science solutions pursue a variety of stem cell treatments. But what happens when you mix the two? The development of a new category called… organic robots.

(Interested in how robotics will influence healthcare in the future? Find that story here.)

In essence, organic, biological materials make up organic robots and are automated entities. While the use of some biological materials enhances robotic features, the creation of organic robots is completely from biological substances. And some of the most recent discoveries in this area are suggesting these creations could represent important stem cell treatments. These therapies could involve the removal of waste substances to drug delivery systems within the human body. But with this comes new ethical questions that must be addressed.

organic robots, joshua bongard qouted
There’s nothing fictional about xenobots.

Organic Robots Made from Frogs?!

At the University of Vermont, researchers have recently been able to create organic robots from frog stem cells. The organic robots called xenobots are from cells of the frog species Xenopus Laevis. These immature cells capable of developing into a variety of different cell types are being used for a number of therapies. In addition to stem cell treatments involving organ replacements and cancer therapies, organic robots are also being pursued. In essence, the creation of entirely new “beings” came from the combination and collection of these cells.

These new frog organic robots are not likely what you think. For one, they are less than 1mm in size. The use of artificial intelligence through a supercomputer made it possible to make thousands of combinations of frog skin and heart cells. The combination that appeared to offer the best functionality was then selected. Stem cells were then assembled into tiny “flesh blobs” that were able to move on their own. And using artificial intelligence, these organic robots can be programmed as specific stem cell treatments for a number of situations.

stem cell treatments, michael levin qouted
Organic robots may be the solution to end to chronic illnesses.

New Opportunities for Stem Cell Treatments

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the xenobots. The goal of the project was to create organic robots that were eco-friendly and safer for human health. In addition, however, these stem cell treatments were meant to provide new approaches to tough social health problems. (Read our exclusive story on Social Determinants of Health.) Specifically, these organic robots could clean up toxic waste or even remove plastics from the ocean. And based on their organic nature and origins, they eliminated many issues that traditional robotics face.

In addition to these opportunities for these stem cell treatments, new direct healthcare techniques also exist. For example, based on their size, these organic robots can travel within the human body and blood vessels. This means they may deliver drugs to specific sites in the body with fewer side effects. Likewise, they may also eliminate plaque from within arteries. And as living organisms, these organic robots could serve as research models for future stem cell treatments. The opportunities for these tiny flesh blobs appear to be tremendous.

organic robots, thomas douglas quoted
The ethical questions are just beginning to pile up.

A Rapidly Advancing Field with Ethical Issues

While the University of Vermont’s xenobot creations are amazing, they are far from the only new stem cell treatments. For example, Frequency Therapeutics is developing small molecule drugs that activate progenitor cells within the body to restore healthy tissues. ViaCyte is pursuing stem cell treatments that can mature into insulin-producing pancreatic cells. Magenta Therapeutics is investing in techniques to enhance transplant opportunities for patients using stem cell treatments. And the University of Washington is researching liquid organic robots that can develop into small organoids usable for transplant organs.

While these developments in science and technology are incredible, they come with some ethical concerns. It is possible to perceive organic robots as living organisms with their own set of rights. It is unlikely to view tiny xenobots with such limited capacities this way.  But as stem cell treatments advance, this could be a serious consideration. Currently, these organic robots cannot reproduce or show evolutionary advancement. But if this happens with future stem cell treatments, then these ethical questions become more relevant.

Are We Ready for Xenobots?

Organic robots exist today and we are certainly ready for the possible advantages that they offer.  Novel stem cell treatments through these types of developments offer great promise for advancing healthcare and social wellness. But as stem cell treatments progress, new issues will arise that need to be considered. Exploring these issues ahead of time would be wise given the speed in which these technologies are expanding. While clear black-and-white answers are unlikely, the dialogue surrounding these subjects helps prepare us for what’s to come. In any case, organic robots and other stem cell treatments are around the corner. And the repercussions are likely to be quite impressive.

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