Jun 07 2021

Dr Matthew Bryan, Department of Electronic Engineering, is the lead author of a research paper that, in collaboration with Exeter University, demonstrated the creation of magnetic micro-robots that mimic biological cells. We recently caught up with Dr Bryan to ask more about this research paper. 

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Electronic Engineering?

My field of expertise is in magnetism, studying how micro- and nano-sized magnets can be used in computing or to apply forces to other structures. I first joined Electronic Engineering as a post-doc in 2019 and became a lecturer there at the start of 2020. I currently teach second and fourth year modules and help to support the PhD students within the Nano-Electronics and Materials group.

2. You are the lead author of a research paper that, in collaboration with Exeter University, demonstrated the creation of magnetic micro-robots that mimic biological cells, what does this mean for the future of engineering and health science?

As we have seen over the last year, the ability to quickly diagnose disease is essential for providing rapid treatment and limiting outbreaks. On campus we have deployed lateral flow tests to monitor coronavirus (Covid-19) within the university population. These are a type of point-of-care diagnostic test that are very good at detecting a single disease. However, taking a step back from our current focus on Covid-19, it would be beneficial to have a point-of-care diagnostic test that could detect several diseases at once. For example, a patient with a fever would need different treatments depending on what disease was causing the fever. 

To produce a rapid test that monitored multiple diseases, the first problem is distributing the patient’s sample to the different sensors. That is where our paper comes in. The paper showed that the microrobots pumped water by moving in a motion like a Mexican wave. This is similar to the very efficient method that lung cells use to clear debris out of airways. In addition to this, the micro-robots were manufactured using standard microfabrication methods so they could feasibly be integrated into testing kits at large enough scale to meet demand. Also, since the micro-robots are activated wirelessly using magnetic fields, the test is not slowed down by the need to plug anything in. 

Demonstrating a simple pump compatible with the requirements of rapid testing is a first step to being able to test for several different diseases at once. Looking beyond the current pandemic, perfecting a disposable rapid multi-disease test would mean being able to give a specific diagnosis rather than simply ruling out one possible cause of a patient’s symptoms as current lateral flow tests do.

3. How did the research collaboration between Royal Holloway and Exeter University come about?

The collaboration was a continuation of work I had performed as a post-doc at Exeter before coming to Royal Holloway. Initially, we had been looking at methods of creating free-floating microrobots that could swim, with the aim of creating a new method of drug delivery or shuttling reagents around a microfluidic chip. We realised that if the microrobot was prevented from moving, its function would change from swimming to pumping. After trying a variety of different designs, we settled on a design that performs a ‘Mexican wave’ similar to motions seen in cells.

4. Can you explain how the research was carried out, and what tests needed to be done?

A key part of the research was developing the method of making the micro-robots. This involved combining several microfabrication steps to create a drum-like structure consisting of a membrane of micro-robots covering a solid frame. Videos of the micro-robots in action were taken using a microscope that had been adapted to include an electromagnet. This allowed me to characterise the motion of the micro-robots and the water surrounding them. Calculations from my collaborators in Exeter helped us to understand why the micro-robots behaved as they did.

5. What is your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway?

Electronic engineering is a very special department to work in. I have really appreciated the family atmosphere and support I have received from all members of staff, particularly with the challenges that the pandemic has brought to my first year of teaching. Everyone is so passionate about helping each student achieve their potential, which makes it a truly inspiring place to be.

6. How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

Going on walks with my wife. I’m lucky enough to live somewhere that has a variety of different parks nearby, so it’s easy to get out and have a change of scenery.