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Look! The “curve wrecker” of BIT: building miniature starfish robots and assembling livers!

He is a diligent and hard-working student, and has won more than ten commendations such as Xuteli Scholarship of Beijing Institute of Technology and Beijing Outstanding Graduate, etc. He has published 15 academic papers in the field of robotics, one paper in Nature Communications as the only first author, applied for one authorized US patent, one PCT international patent and three national invention patents. He was invited to attend The 8th IEEE International Conference on Automation, Control Network Technology in 2018, and gave an invited presentation. He is Zheng Zhiqiang, a 2017 PhD student in the School of Mechatronical Engineering.

“Calm, with a firm gaze, always keeping his enthusiasm for scientific research.” This is the most frequent comment given to him by people around him.

Miniature Starfish Robot, the New Future of Precision Medicine

“Every time I see the stretching and contraction of small robots under the microscope, my mood is always overwhelmed with joy. To me, they are not just the growth of cells, but represent more possibilities for magnetically controlled robotics research and more possibilities for the future development of robotics.”

Faced with the increasing incidence of cancer, researchers have been working to design and build a micro-robot to replace traditional surgery and perform a series of medical tasks such as non-invasive pathological sampling and precise drug delivery inside the human body, providing patients with a safer, more efficient and painless treatment. With the advantage of his cross-disciplinary background and unique understanding of the subtle connection between biomaterials and micro-nano-robotics, Zheng aspired to build a micro-nano-robotic processing method and theory that combines knowledge of biomaterials. During his first year of PhD, he conducted a month-long study and research at the City University of Hong Kong, and was delighted by the discovery that the boundary effect of microelectrodes causes the hydrogel microstructure to undergo a non-homogeneous evolution of mechanical properties during an experiment. This means he can design the shape and strength of the electric field to make the hydrogel microstructure acquire a series of autonomous response to the microenvironment including complex deformation, environmental self-adaptation, multi-motion modes, etc.

Autonomous deformation of Zheng's research result, a sea star mimicking micro-robot under pH environment sensing

In a subsequent study, inspired by starfish predation, Zheng used the principle of hydrogel non-homogeneous evolution to construct a starfish-like microrobot with flexible tentacles that can effectively fit the external contours of any target with autonomous deformation in a liquid environment, and grasp and release it. The starfish-like microrobot is the first autonomous deformation microrobot based on the ion excitation of living body fluid. The biomimetic microcellular self-deformation method based on the non-homogeneous evolution of mechanical properties proposed by Zheng effectively enhances the design flexibility of the deformation microrobot, which can give deformation capability to a single-layer thin-film robot under arbitrary shape tailoring, enabling it to sense the ion environment in the living body and deform intelligently. This micro-robot provides technical support for adaptive precision biological micro-operations in complex closed living body environments, and provides intelligent operational tools for future precision medical and tissue repair fields such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular thrombolysis, ulcerative colitis repair, and targeted drug delivery to tumor and other foci.

Zheng is doing experiments

The second half of 2019 was a critical stage for Zheng to conduct experimental validation and an important period for publishing papers and data compilation. However, the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the established rhythm, and the experiment was forced to press the pause button at the most critical time. He closely communicated with his mentor overseas through the online communication platform established by the university to discuss the experimental plan together. During the continuous discussion and communication, Zheng came up with the current experimental results, a new micro-robot built from a single material of hydrogel because the material is completely biodegradable, so it can solve the problem that the micro-robot is difficult to be recycled under the closed experimental environment of living bodies.

In January 2021, Zheng successfully developed an intelligent deformation monolayer film microrobot with environmental ion response capability, and the related results were published in Nature Communications. This achievement is the first to propose a single degradable biomaterial to realize the self-deformation of micro-robots under environmental perception, effectively solving the problem of non-invasive sampling, transportation, delivery and retrieval of micro-robots in the closed environment of living bodies such as human bodies and other integrated operations, which is important for precision medicine of major diseases such as cancer.

Keep trying to complete a new breakthrough in regenerative medicine

“Promote the transformation of scientific research results on the ground and let scientific research work play a greater role”

The electromagnetic control system developed independently by Zheng and team members

Partial and total liver transplantation are important tools for the treatment of many malignant and acute liver diseases, yet the shortage of liver donors and the huge demand for treatment is a long-term intractable contradiction in liver disease treatment. Functional and structural mimicry of artificial liver tissue through micro-robots has been known as a difficult problem in the industry. After a lot of literature research and experimental attempts, and under the coordination and guidance of the group's teachers Shi Qing and Wang Huaping, Zheng actively cooperated with 304 Hospital and Jishuitan Hospital to propose a multi-robot cross-domain synergistic and fluid He proposed a multi-robot cross-domain synergistic and hydrodynamic interaction biological manipulation method, and realized the automated 3D integrated assembly and biological function expression of liver tissue with artificial liver lobule micro-module as the assembly object, which broke through the bionic artificial liver tissue robot large-scale integrated assembly technology. This technology can efficiently process and assemble bionic artificial liver tissues, which provides a large amount of reproducible material basis for liver transplantation and repair.

Zheng also used the artificial liver tissue constructed by micro-robots as a biological model for new drug testing as well as pathological studies for liver function diseases, and also conducted drug toxicity assessment on a rat in vivo test model, and verified that the two have a high biofunctional match, which means that roboticized bio-manufactured bionic liver lobule tissue is expected to replace animals as a novel biological model. Currently, the related technical results are being applied and promoted in several biological companies. The research results have also won three international academic awards and formed a patent cluster including two international invention patents and three national invention patents. Zheng's graduation thesis was evaluated as an excellent graduation thesis at university level, and he himself was evaluated as an excellent graduate of Beijing.

Never forgetting the original intention, inheriting the red gene of BIT

“I am a novice in the field of micro-nano, and although there are many uncertainties in the future, I firmly believe that I will keep going.”

Zheng’s bachelor degree is in Bioengineering from Hebei University of Technology, while master's degree in Biomaterials Science from University of Nottingham, UK. After graduation, he was attracted by the open and innovative research atmosphere and the strong faculty and advanced research platform of the Robotics Institute of BIT.

Zheng Zhiqiang giving a presentation at the academic conference

With the support of the international exchange platform of BIT, Zheng Zhiqiang has conducted research on “ultra-high speed cell assembly” with the research teams of several foreign universities, and realized the large-scale integrated assembly of heterogeneous viscoelastic biological targets through high-precision micro and nano manipulation robots and fast vision capture technology, which significantly improved the robotization The research has significantly improved the adaptability of robotized biological micromanipulation to complex tasks. At the International Conference on Soft-bodied Magnetic Small-scale Mobile Robots, Zheng's results were fully recognized by Prof. M. Sitti, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Physical Intelligence and the originator of magnetically controlled micro-robots in Germany. As a result, he received a full scholarship from the Max Planck Institute to continue his research at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Intelligence in Germany.

Zheng (second row, fourth from right) with his labmates

“Mindset and faith are important. I also have times of despair and depression, but I know that what I want is not the success of one experiment or the publication of one paper. As a person from BIT, I know that there is no end to the road of scientific research. With fire in my heart, light in my eyes, and the light of reason to water the flower of science and technology, I hope I can master profound academics and make scientific research results that are valuable to society.” For the future, Zheng is full of determination and confidence. He hopes that he can return to teach and educate student at BIT, and continue his scientific research career in micro and nano robotics research.

Youth is to fight

The year 2022 is the year of the 20th Party Congress and the key year for the implementation of the 14th Five-Year Plan. The Propaganda Department of the Party Committee has launched a special report entitled “Welcome the 20th National Congress, Strive for a New Journey” to show the achievements of the university, to tell the story of the fight of the people of BIT, to gather the majestic strength for the development of the university and to welcome the 20th National Congress with excellent achievements.

As a sub-topic of “Welcome the 20th National Congress and Enter the New Era”, the column of “Youth is to fight” will launch a series of reports on outstanding students and groups who have made outstanding achievements in professional studies, science and technology innovation, arts and sports, etc.