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"Go-Getters" -- The Discovery Files

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By using swarms of untethered grippers, each as small as a speck of dust, Johns Hopkins engineers say they have devised a new way to perform biopsies that could provide a more effective way to access narrow conduits in the body.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Get a grip.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Biopsies are one of the most useful diagnostic procedures for early detection of cancer and other diseases. Now, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have developed a promising new technology that could revolutionize biopsies.

Conventional biopsy procedures involve collecting tissue samples using needles or long tethered tubes inserted into the body and may require surgical incisions.

With the new method, an army of tiny star-shaped surgical tools, each the size of a speck of dust, is inserted into the patient, untethered through natural orifices. When activated by body heat, the micro-grippers' tiny "fingers" curl inward and close on a small cluster of cells. Because they are embedded with a magnetic material, they can be retrieved using a magnetic tool through an existing body opening.

Not only is the procedure non-invasive, the micro-grippers can get into hard-to-reach places and can collect far more samples--from many more locations than traditional biopsies. That could help doctors catch what otherwise might be missed.

So far the method has only been tested on animals. Further development is needed before it could be used on humans.

Free-floating micro surgical tools--how does that grab you?

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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