As the old advertising campaign used to say, “There’s always room for Jello.” Who knew that this slogan could have been predicting the future of surgery and other medical procedures?
Scientists at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland have been experimenting with a composite material made from gelatin with glycerol. The result is a flexible, non-toxic, and digestible material with mechanical properties similar to silicone plastics. The researchers have been able to mold this into a structure that can be used to bend and apply force, simply by adding air pressure. The segments can bend nearly 180 degrees, and apply sufficient pressure to pick up objects. The photos above show the device picking up an apple, a boiled egg, an orange, a LEGO block, and a container of chewing gum.
One hopes that physicians would not encounter such objects intact in a patient’s digestive system, but the technology could be used as the basis for a system to provide surgical procedures or other tasks. We already have edible electronics, power sources, sensors, and other components necessary to create an autonomous robot that could be swallowed. This could lead to devices that could be guided remotely to inspect the digestive tract, identify areas of interest, and even deliver treatment or perform a surgical procedure on the spot.