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Professor Yu Sun, founder of the University of Toronto’s Advanced Micro and Nanosystems Laboratory. One of the lab’s projects is robotic in vitro fertilization.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Tiny robots could help turn prospective parents' dreams into reality.

It depends on how a robotic in-vitro fertilization technique developed by the Advanced Micro and Nanosystems Laboratory (AMNL) at the University of Toronto pans out.

Two years ago, this technique was used to "produce the world's first robotically created human fertilization," says Yu Sun, who established the lab in 2004 in the U of T Mechanical and Industrial Engineering department.

Large-scale trials have yet to be conducted to determine whether the system is feasible as a standard medical tool.

Microtechnology and nanotechology involve the manipulation of extremely small robots or bits of matter. To give a sense of the units of measure involved, a micrometre is one millionth of a metre, while a nanometre is a billionth.

The AMNL's in vitro project focused on improving Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection, a process used to create test tube babies. Developed in the early 1990s, the procedure allows an embryologist to gather a single sperm in a needle and inject it into an oocyte (egg cell). Given that a sperm head is about five micrometres wide, doing this procedure by hand requires a tremendous amount of precision, dexterity and accuracy.

To make this process more efficient and precise, the U of T lab developed a robotic injection system.

Their system analyzes the sperm "and picks out the best one. The robot then picks up the selected sperm … recognizes the egg cell and punctures the cell membrane to get the sperm in there," Dr. Sun explains. "The injected cell is incubated until it develops in vitro in a petri dish." If it looks like it is growing well, the physician transfers it into the uterus of the patient.

What the lab calls the RICSI system (Robotic Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection) was first used in human trials in 2012. Though the egg cells were successfully fertilized and transferred to the patients, they ended up having miscarriages, Dr. Sun says.

Researchers want to improve the technology behind RICSI and attract funding for large-scale patient trials at some point in the next 18 months.

Solar cells to synapses

The Grutter Research Group at McGill University in Montreal is also active on the tiny technology front. The group, led by Peter Grutter, chairman of McGill's Department of Physics, invents, designs, builds and modifies atomic force microscopes and similar equipment that can be used to manipulate and study matter on a micro or nano scale.

These studies have a wide range of applications, such as looking at how organic systems convert light to electricity (useful in solar power cells), or understanding the properties of atomic scale contacts (potentially useful in smaller electronic devices in the future, or in the future production of new materials, such as in advanced car engines), Dr. Grutter says.

The group also studies quantum-level processes (with potential applications in quantum computing) and seeks to understand how lithium ions diffuse in batteries (important in getting lithium batteries to charge faster).

In another field, the group looks at how connections, or synapses, in neurons are formed and can be artificially manipulated (which could be relevant for treating neuro-degenerative diseases).

McGill also runs Nanotools Microfab, a facility where academics and researchers of all stripes can experiment with micro- and nanotechnology (the Toronto Nanofabrication Centre at the U of T serves a similar purpose) and build devices related to their research.

"Essentially, it's a 21st century tool shop allowing you to machine structures as small as a few nanometres in size," Dr. Grutter says.

Levitating robots

The University of Waterloo Nanorobotics Group in Waterloo, Ont., is experimenting with levitating tiny robots. They are using a process called "quantum locking," where a superconductor tends to stay in place when exposed to a magnetic field. For example, if you tilt the superconductor at a 45-degree angle while it hovers in the air, it will remain at a 45-degree angle. This allows the group's microrobot, MAYA, to turn or levitate.

"We have several projects that could have commercial applications," says Ryan Kearns, project director at the Nanorobotics Group, which is affiliated with the Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering department.

For instance, if the MAYA project is successful, it could have applications in the micro-fabrication industry, where the tiny robots would allow the precise manipulation of microscopic parts, he says. This would also open the door to building more complicated micro-machines.

No sci-fi film

Still, researchers warn against unrealistic expectations; we're a long way off from Fantastic Voyage, the 1960s science-fiction film in which a miniaturized submarine and crew are injected in a human body to root out a troublesome blood clot.

"I am very optimistic about the use of microrobots in medicine. However, they will have specific and limited applications, such as targeted drug delivery, cauterizing small veins, opening blocked arteries, etc. Any 'inject and forget' nano-robot is still many, many years from being possible," Mr. Kearns says.

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