Microrobots in the GBA

8 February 2024

In the first of a series of articles exploring the development of scientific collaboration across the Greater Bay Area, Croucher News met up with Professor Li Zhang from the Chinese University of Hong Kong to discuss his partnership with the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology as well as other activities partly or wholly funded by Croucher Foundation. We also asked Professor Xinyu Wu from the Centre for Intelligent and Biomimetic Systems at SIAT for his views on their collaboration.

Professor Li Zhang is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering and a professor by courtesy in the Department of Surgery at CUHK. His main research interests include small-scale robotics, from individual and multiple robots to swarms, and their applications for translational biomedicine.

In 2020, Zhang was the recipient of a CAS-Croucher Funding Scheme for Joint Laboratories to support a three-year research project with the title “Development of a Medical Microrobotic Platform for Post-operative Treatment in the GI Tract.”

We started by asking about the benefits that Zhang could identify from working with a partner in Shenzhen.

“First and foremost,” he told us, “science is a collaborative exercise. Our field is inherently interdisciplinary. Our partners in SIAT have particular strengths, such as automation and control, which complement our strengths in biomedicine, and testing, and clinical expertise. Putting these strengths together makes for an effective project team. It also helped that one of the key SIAT partners had done her postdoc research in my lab in 2014-16,” he added.

Professor Wu agreed: “The collaboration in this project focuses on the complementary scientific backgrounds and expertise of the two teams.” He also added that to make collaboration across the GA more effective, there was a need to “establish effective communication mechanisms, understand regulations and policies, adopt multi-language communication to ensure accurate transmission of information, and emphasise intellectual property protection and compliance to facilitate the smooth implementation of collaborative projects.”

“Of course, it’s hard work to put all these elements together. But the CAS-Croucher Funding Scheme for Joint Laboratories has really helped us,” continued Zhang. When asked about the opportunities or challenges for cooperation across the GBA, Zhang stressed the importance of ease of access. “It’s quite easy for us to visit each other regularly (see photo 1),” he said. “A joint lab that both sides could access daily to foster closer collaboration would be even better,” he said. “So, thanks to the Chinese State Council, the potential offered by the Hetao Shenzhen-Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Zone is very exciting,” he added.

Wu, for his part, emphasised that the key benefits of working across the GBA included “the ability to leverage the region’s professional resources and talent to drive innovation and enhance technology, as well as access to support and platforms for cross-border collaboration to promote the development and application of intelligent robots in the medical field.”

Zhang and his colleagues from CUHK Medical School and SIAT are doing work that could have a big effect on how GI cancer is treated after endoscopy surgery. The medical microrobotic platform can perform a minimally invasive therapeutic intervention to speed up healing and get rid of any remaining cancerous cells after the endoscopic submucosal dissection (ESD) procedure in the GI tract. The decision to focus on the GI tract stems from the fact that CUHK medical school partners, Professor Joseph Sung and Professor Philip Chiu, are world-renowned scholars and clinicians in digestive diseases who have been working with Zhang for many years on this research topic.

The microrobots they are developing for this are partly inspired by the way bacteria, expert navigators of our bodies, move about. “Bacteria are, in a sense, natural microrobots,” Zhang told us, “and just as happens in many other engineering fields, we are learning from nature. In this case, we’re studying the shape and motion of the bacteria to inform the design of the microrobots.”

The idea of microrobots being injected into the body to assist clinicians in their work by delivering drugs to a very specific, targeted area in the body still sounds like science fiction but is becoming an exciting reality. Indeed, Zhang, as a leading researcher on this emerging topic, was interviewed for an outlook article under the title “Miniature medical robots step out from sci-fi,” published on the Nature website in 2022.

It’s necessary to attract new researchers into this area, however, given the challenges and the highly interdisciplinary nature of the work, and it’s crucial to get input from as many experts as possible. That’s where Zhang’s other grants from Croucher Foundation come in. He has just held a Croucher Foundation Workshop on “Medical Microrobots for Translational Biomedicine” (see photo 3), and in January 2024 he is organising a Croucher Advance Study Institute on medical robots.

These kinds of workshops and symposia increase the visibility of the research and allow the exchange of ideas with leading researchers worldwide. “For example, not only do such meetings allow us to get input and ideas from world-leading experts like Professor Joseph Sung (Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellowship in 2004, a former President of CUHK and now a senior vice president at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), but they also give younger researchers the opportunity to meet someone like him and get informed and inspired.”

Zhang hopes that in 3–5 years there will be a tangible impact on clinical practice from his team’s research. And here he points to another benefit of working with his partner in Shenzhen. “We know that Shenzhen is strong in the manufacturing industry, so in terms of actually getting our microrobotic tools and platforms built, it’s a great place to be working,” he told us.

Wu was upbeat about the results of the project so far, which had shown that “soft micro-robots are able to navigate autonomously in complex environments and also with intelligent control, which lays a solid foundation for the future development of the field of soft robot applications.”

“I also feel quite confident about the future commercialisation of our translational research,” Zhang added. “And we already have some support for business incubation from the Hong Kong Science Park.”