The robots are coming: After working under-the-radar for four years, Bionaut Labs is raising the curtain on its tiny, remote-controlled devices, built to travel through the human body and deliver a dose of medicine where it’s needed the most.
Smaller than a millimeter and with a few moving parts, the tiny voyagers are designed to navigate through tissues and go where today’s surgeons cannot, such as when dealing with hard-to-reach cancers.
Their success would be a big step toward the fantastic future promised by decades of science fiction—but at its core, according to founder and CEO Michael Shpigelmacher, it’s an idea that is eminently practical.
“When there was a revolution in surgical robotics 10 to 20 years ago, the whole concept was built on complicated, multi-jointed robotic arms,” Shpigelmacher said in an interview. “As you look at the evolution of that industry, it’s gone from one arm, to two arms, to five arms…companies are going for more robotic arms with more degrees of freedom.”
“Our paradigm is actually the opposite. We’re saying move to a different category—where there are no robotic arms, and as many degrees of freedom as you want—but it’s just by controlling the tip,” he said. “As a company, we think that technically and medically this is the more elegant solution.”
Imagine a miniature screw that, as it rotates, can push its way through the body’s inner spaces until it reaches its target, releases a drug, and then returns the way it came. But rather than rotating it with a screwdriver, the tool is invisible, and guided only by magnetic fields generated outside the body.
This allows the small devices, dubbed Bionauts themselves, to overcome the obvious constraint that holds back surgical drills, probes and needles—once they’re in the body, they can’t turn.
“Typical brain procedures today are significantly more invasive than the Bionaut procedure, and they’re definitely less accurate and precise in terms of their trajectory—because they are limited to taking linear paths,” Shpigelmacher said. In fact, a common biopsy diagnostic procedure may use a needle wider than a Bionaut, and take core samples through healthy brain tissue on its straight line to a tumor.
To start, the company aims to tackle gliomas of the brainstem. The aggressive tumor is mostly diagnosed at a young age, and can be particularly difficult to treat due to its dense and sensitive surroundings, which help regulate the body’s heartbeat and breathing.
By traveling up the spine or through the brain’s reservoirs of cerebrospinal fluid, Bionaut Labs hopes to safely navigate to the cancer and unlock a mechanism that delivers chemotherapies directly—or any established drug payload that may have wider side effects when given intravenously, or has trouble crossing the protective barriers between the bloodstream and the brain.
“Because of the anatomy, you cannot reach the middle of a patient’s brainstem in a way that is not going to harm them significantly today,” he said. “This way, you can get higher drug concentrations in situ, while you get much lower to nonexistent concentrations in the plasma.”
So far, the Los Angeles-based company has conducted preclinical studies on small and large live animals, showing no long-term neurological damage from the Bionauts. Now, the company has raised $20 million to help take it to the next step, and lock down the design of its technologies before moving into human clinical trials planned for 2023.
“We are thrilled to bring Bionaut Labs out of stealth mode as it typifies the type of new impactful technology companies we like to help build,” said Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, which led Bionauts’ latest financing alongside backing from Upfront Ventures, Revolution, BOLD Capital and Compound.
“Bionauts hold great promise as a new targeted treatment modality for severe brain disorders for which there are few, if any, effective treatment options,” Khosla added. “Moreover, the broad therapeutic potential of Bionauts extends to many diseases where conventional therapies are limited or lacking.”
The company also plans to explore its potential against neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s, before one day tackling acute conditions like stroke, using a range of Bionauts with different shapes and characteristics.
“What’s even more exciting is that the anatomical targeting capabilities of the Bionaut platform make new therapeutic technologies such as antisense, siRNA, gene therapy, CRISPR-Cas9, and oncolytic viruses viable in challenging clinical settings,” said Errol DeSouza, head of the company’s advisory board, and co-founder of Neurocrine Biosciences.
And along the way, Shpigelmacher hopes to convince physicians and patients that the idea of tiny robots helping to heal the body from within can be more science than fiction after all.
“It makes the discussion much simpler when—instead of talking about a spaceship flying around your brain—you say: ‘We’re treating this condition, it’s brainstem glioma; this is the payload, you know this payload; and we’re going to move X centimeters in and X centimeters out and deliver this thing,” he said. “It becomes extremely tangible and grounds it.”