U of T researchers receive funding to develop AI-powered microrobots

Optoelectronic microrobots designed by U of T researchers Shuailong Zhang and Aaron Wheeler can load, transport and deliver cellular material (photo courtesy of Shuailong Zhang)

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research have received a funding boost to help realize their vision of using tiny robots controlled by artificial intelligence to one day find and capture rare stem cells from brain tissue for therapy. 

Working with Mike Shaw, a machine learning expert at University College London, U of T's Aaron Wheeler and Cindi Morshead will receive more than $1 million from the new Canada-UK Artificial Intelligence Initiative.

Supported by the two countries’ federal governments, the initiative seeks to harness AI for societal benefit by bringing together experts from diverse disciplines.

“We have previously developed microrobots for manipulating individual cells in a dish,” says Wheeler, a professor in U of T’s department of chemistry in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

“Now we want to take it to the next level to design robots that can isolate single cells from a crowded environment such as brain tissue and make the system fully automated.”

A total of 10 international teams shared approximately $5 million and £5 million over three years, according to an announcement made earlier this week by Navdeep Bains, Canada's minister of innovation, science and industry, and British High Commissioner to Canada Susan le Jeune d'Allegeershecque. Other projects funded through the program, a collaboration between Canada's three research funding agencies and four UK research councils, seek to harness AI across different sectors, from countering abusive online language to improving labour market equality and monitoring global disease outbreaks.

“Artificial intelligence is transforming all industries and sectors, opening up more opportunities for Canadians,” Bains said in a statement. “Today we take one step further toward ensuring that AI innovation and growth builds competitive and resilient economies, and maximizes the social and health benefits in both Canada and the UK.”

Stem cells hold promise for regenerative medicine thanks to their ability to self-renew and turn into specialized cells in the body. Scientists around the world are exploring how resident stem cells in the brain can be harnessed to treat neurodegenerative diseases or repair injury.

Read more, Jovana Drinjakovic