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February 9, 2024

Focus on new faculty: Yunus Alapan creates microrobots to benefit human health

Written By: Adam Malecek

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During a medical appointment, a doctor deploys a tiny robot in a patient’s body, where it homes in on the patient’s diseased cells and tissues and delivers drugs directly to them. In the future, such localized therapeutic delivery could make treatments more effective and alleviate damage to vital organs and non-diseased areas of the body.

It’s one potential application of Yunus Alapan’s research, which is focused on developing bioinspired and soft microrobots and systems for healthcare. Alapan is joining the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering as an assistant professor in spring 2024.

Yunus Alapan
Yunus Alapan

“I am interested in developing microrobots to interact with and manipulate cells and tissues inside and outside of the human body,” Alapan says.

He says that having the capability to mimic the biological and physical interactions of cells with other cells and their extracellular environment is key in developing realistic physiological and disease models. These models are important for mechanistic studies and drug screening, as well as for high-efficiency cell/tissue manufacturing and therapeutic delivery.

Alapan draws inspiration from cells to create microrobots that are as small as our cells and tissues (a few millimeters). Actuated via wireless magnetic signals, the microrobots can be loaded with biological molecules that enable them to sense, activate and kill target cells.

“Cells are the ultimate microrobots,” he says. “They can autonomously travel, sense, communicate, self-replicate and regulate their environments, which are capabilities we envision for our microrobots to have as well.”

That’s why he uses living cells as the base material for making some of his microrobots, adding magnetic particles and cargo carriers to create cellular cyborgs.

While realizing microrobotic targeted drug delivery is a big long-term goal for the field, in the short-term, Alapan’s microrobots are useful for applications outside the body. He’s especially excited to employ microrobots in studying and engineering immune cells, and to improve the quality and efficiency of T cell manufacturing for cancer therapy.

“The Madison area is especially well-known for its strong cell manufacturing ecosystem, with UW-Madison as its cornerstone, and I’m looking forward to many opportunities for collaboration,” he says.

Alapan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Yildiz Technical University in Turkey and his PhD in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University. As a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany, Alapan (and his collaborators) made a major advance toward enabling targeted drug delivery. The team created cell-sized microrobots, inspired by white blood cells. Then the team showed the microrobots could easily navigate within blood circulation—and even move upstream through fast flowing blood in a simulated blood vessel.

Alapan comes to UW-Madison from Georgia Tech, where he was a postdoctoral researcher at the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences.

He says the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering’s significant growth in robotics faculty and research makes it an excellent place to establish his lab. “The mechanical engineering department is truly interdisciplinary, with not only many unique robotics faculty but also many groups focusing on biomechanics at the cellular and tissue scale,” he says. “It is exhilarating to be a part of this department with such a breadth and depth at the same time.”


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