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Q&A: Dr. MinJun Kim Reveals How Biologically Inspired Tech Will Change the Medical Field

26 January 2016

Dr. MinJun Kim is a professor at Drexel University with a joint appointment in both the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Mechanics and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science & Health System.

Dr. MinJun Kim (Source: Drexel University/ BAST Labs)Dr. MinJun Kim (Source: Drexel University/ BAST Labs)Kim started up the university’s Biological Actuation, Sensing, and Transport (BAST) Laboratory which develops biologically inspired materials and devices such as solid-state nanopores and robotic microswimmers to accelerate the discovery of small-scale physics. Kim and his team from the lab are currently working on tiny robots that doctors can use within a human’s body to perform medical procedures, like un-clog arteries.

Kim tells Electronics 360 about his experience in the lab, as well as the technology in the works and how it can impact the medical field.

Nicolette Emmino: Dr. Kim, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your engineering experience?

Dr. MinJun Kim: I received my B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Yonsei University in Korea and Texas A&M University, respectively. I completed my Ph.D. degree in Engineering at Brown University, where I held the prestigious Simon Ostrach Fellowship. Following my graduate studies, I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Rowland Institute in Harvard University. For the past several years, I have been exploring biological transport phenomena including cellular/molecular mechanics and engineering in novel nano/microscale architectures to produce new types of nanobiotechology, such as nanopore technology and nano/micro robotics. My notable awards include the National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2008), Drexel Career Development Award (2008), Human Frontier Science Program Young Investigator Award (2009), Army Research Office Young Investigator Award (2010), Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship (2011), KOFST Brain Pool Fellowship (2013 & 2015), Bionic Engineering Outstanding Contribution Award (2013), Louis & Bessie Stein Fellowship (2008 & 2014), ISBE Fellow (2014), and ASME Fellow (2014).

Nicolette Emmino: Why did you decide to get involved with BAST Labs and the development of small scale materials and devices for biological applications?

Dr. MinJun Kim : Based on my PhD research in bacterial microfluidics, I realized that the development of biologically inspired materials and devices such as solid-state nanopores and robotic microswimmers enable accelerated discovery of small-scale physics and dynamics for better understanding Mother Nature. With that in mind, my lab members are actively working four broad research projects revolving around small scale engineering: Microbiorobotics for Manipulation and Sensing, Synthetic Nanopore Fabrication and Single Molecule Analysis, Biologically Inspired Metamaterials for Nano/Optoelectronics, and Swimming and Flying at Low Reynold Number.

Nicolette Emmino: What is your vision for the BAST Lab?

Dr. MinJun Kim: Our vision encompasses the development of nanoscale science, engineering and technology to discover the physics, chemistry and biology of phenomena occurring in the small world. Ongoing research programs can be broadly categorized into three core subject areas: transport phenomena, bioinspired systems design and fabrication, and single molecule biophysics. Although each core program consists of a distinct project, we would like to emphasize their synergistic nature – advances in one core are expected to drive the development of the others. The unifying component of all the cores is “nanoscale engineering.”

Inside BAST. (Source: Dr. MinJun Kim)Inside BAST. (Source: Dr. MinJun Kim)Nicolette Emmino: Can you tell us about your most recent project, the robotic microswimmer, and its potential impact on the medical field?

Dr. MinJun Kim: Our robotic microswimmers are around 10 microns long, can be controlled wirelessly using magnetic fields, and can swim in fluidic environments. The microswimmers are composed of spherical magnetic microparticles.

The concept is to use the microswimmers as tools for direct exploration and manipulation. If there are diseased cells in the body, like tumor cells, it is not always a good idea to surgically remove the cells because the doctor cannot distinguish healthy and diseased cells at a microscale level. Using our microswimmer, the doctors can potentially attack the diseased cells at a microscale level. Another example is the treatment of atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries. Microswimmers can be injected into the body and travel along the bloodstream. Much like a drain cleaning, microswimmer can drill through the blockage or delivery chemical to soften the arterial plaque.

Nicolette Emmino: Where do the ideas for your research projects come from?

Dr. MinJun Kim: My research idea of controlling microrobots came from science fiction stories. When I saw the Inner Space (1987), I envisioned the possibilities of being able to freely move around the human body and repair damages on a cellular or molecular level.

Nicolette Emmino: How much time goes into bringing a project from concept to reality?

Dr. MinJun Kim: It took me more than 8 years to develop my research and methodologies. This year we will start animal testing, which will mark an important milestone in our research project. To translate this work into reality will take many more years. This will require, not just my own research, but also many other research labs around the world to continue advancing in this field and working together as scientific community. Eventually, we will figure out all the pieces to bring this concept into reality.

Nicolette Emmino: What else is in the works at the BAST Lab?

Dr. MinJun Kim: In the BAST Lab, we are thinking about all of the possibilities to combine micro- and nano-engineering with robotics. We are working on creating Biological micorobots using the natural molecular actuators of microorganisms like bacteria to create propulsive systems. These natural bioactuators are very small, complex, and effective; and these properties are not easily reproducible with currently technology. So we use a different approach. Instead of recreation systems to mimic bioactuators, we directly harness and utilize the bioactuators. Our Bacteria-powered Microrobots (BPMs) and Artificially Magnetotactic Tetrahymena (AMT) are examples of these biological microrobots.

For the future, we want to move to animal testing. Our research is very mature in the lab setting in a well-control environment, but to utilize new technologies, we must test thoroughly in simulated environments that closely resemble the operation environment. Animal testing allow us to do this. Support by to our grant from the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy (MOTIE), we will be ready to conduct animal testing in 2016.

Nicolette Emmino: In your opinion, how will engineering and robotics impact the medical field in the coming years?

Dr. MinJun Kim: In the medical field, engineering and robotics have contributed greatly to the success of surgical procedures. There are countless examples, such as the da Vinci Surgical System used for minimally invasive surgery.

In short, robotic systems allow doctors to perform very complex procedures with very high precision. In the field of Microrobotics, we are doing the same thing; except we are doing this on a much smaller scale. Imagine controlling a tiny robot, not visible to the naked eye, in human body to unclog arteries, delivering medication to damaged cells, or attacking viruses. This will revolutionize the medical field. At this stage, we are far from our goal, but the current research in the field of micro and nanorobotics will help lay the scientific foundation.

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