How a Squishy Worm Robot Could Improve Colonoscopies

The University of Colorado, Boulder
The University of Colorado, Boulder / The University of Colorado, Boulder

A group of scientists believe they've found a way to improve the colonoscopy experience—and it involves a tool that looks like a science fiction film prop. As The Verge reports, the soft biomimetic robot could potentially make colon cancer screenings safer and more comfortable.

With its pliable, segmented body, the device looks like a caterpillar. If you watch the video below, you'll see it moves like one too. But researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder would tell you their invention's resemblance to a creepy-crawly worm isn't intentional. The wriggling movements are instead meant to mirror those of the large intestine.

When the robot is inserted into the rectum, an electric current heats up the springs in its interior. These springs are made from a special shape-memory alloy that regains its original form when exposed to heat. This causes the bot to expand; cool air and the silicon outer layer help it retract. Scientists use this constricting and relaxing rhythm to inch the gadget through the colon, while a camera attached to the end provides them with an intimate view for spotting polyps.

Current colonoscopies involve flexible camera tubes that require a bit of pushing to get around tight curves. This can be uncomfortable for the patient, and it can also lead to bowel perforation a small percentage of the time. About a third of adults over 50 skip their recommended colon cancer screenings, and the dread associated with the procedure may be to blame.

The CU Boulder team designed the soft robot to help make colonoscopies a little less harrowing. The product is in the prototype stage, but after making some improvements, the researchers want to get it into hospitals where patients will hopefully be more open to using it—as long is they can get past the worm comparisons.

[h/t The Verge]