A pill-sized robot for better health outcomes , He karetao iti, he putanga hauora pai

A drive to “work wonders with limited capabilities” and help improve people's quality of life is behind Muhammad Rehan’s PhD research into micro-robotics.

Muhammad Rehan is designing a wireless robotic capsule the size of a pill that can travel through the human or animal gut to collect samples of microorganisms, called microbiota, from specific and previously inaccessible areas.

Muhammad says the capsule's ability to overcome the challenges of traditional methods used to collect samples will be a game-changer in health diagnostics, helping to treat life-threatening diseases.

“The robotic capsule can reach the inaccessible areas of the gut, which is not possible with tethered biopsy endoscopy. It is also significantly less invasive and reasonably comfortable compared to traditional endoscopy. The robotic capsule can sample the microbiota from known locations, and avoids contamination, as compared to faecal sampling. Hence, it offers amazing benefits over the traditional approaches.”

Besides making examinations and treatment less uncomfortable and intrusive for gut-related issues like ulcers, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, Muhammad says the capsule has the potential to collect the microbiota living inside our gut. This can act as a biomarker for earlier – and therefore potentially lifesaving – diagnosis of diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

The benefits of the new technology also extend to nutrition for people and animals.

“The robotic capsule can sample the gut from different locations, which will help us understand the nutrition absorption between the sampled sites. This will allow pet food manufacturers to develop foods with a better understanding of animals' nutritional requirements. Similarly, this approach can lead to the development of personalised diet plans to better adjust the nutritional requirements for individuals such as athletes.”

A winning design

The size of a large vitamin pill (30mm in length and 12mm in diameter), the capsule houses a mechanism to collect samples, a storage chamber to protect the collected samples, an actuator (electronic device) to activate the collection process when it reaches the place it needs to be, and a battery.

In late 2021, the prototype was ready to be tested on animals – tests which would help identify and address challenges that might come up during trials with humans.

In the same year, Muhammad won both Judges Award and the People’s Choice Award of Falling Walls Lab New Zealand organised by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

He was also a finalist for the Best Paper Award (top six out of 56 papers) at the seventh International Conference on Advanced Mechatronics (ICAM 2021) in Aichi, Japan.

Learn about doctoral study at Massey

The long road to Massey

As Muhammad prepared for prototype testing ahead of his thesis write-up, he reflected on a research journey that began in the summer of 2018, with the intention of doing something to help others. This was a journey that almost didn’t happen, and unexpectedly changed track on arrival.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) scholar from Pakistan did his bachelor's degree in Electronic Engineering at Karachi’s Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology in 2008. He completed his master's degree in Electrical (Control) Engineering from National University of Sciences and Technology in 2013.

After deciding to do his PhD at Massey he was accepted, but getting to New Zealand took 18 months. He almost gave up and headed elsewhere, but the continuous motivation from others, including his Massey supervisors Associate Professor Ibrahim Al-Bahadly and particularly Dr Ebu Avci, kept him going.

Change of direction

As the visa paperwork dragged on, Muhammad's interest began to shift. On the day he finally arrived at Massey, Ebu shared some papers on sampling gut microbiota (microorganisms living inside gut).

Muhammad studied them over two weeks and realised what he was reading was more important than what he had planned to work on. He followed his instincts and changed his PhD topic to something he thought would bring tremendous benefits to increasing life expectancy and improving the quality of life. He never looked back.

“I thought, it shouldn’t be just an additional milestone or a degree for myself. Rather, I wanted to help others by pushing the boundaries of current research, to the best possible extent of my faculties. I knew I might not be able to transform the world with just a few years of effort, but I had an intention to contribute as much as possible. I’m a faithful believer, and I knew that if you have the right intention, you can succeed in achieving your righteous milestones.”

Associate Professor Ibrahim Al-Bahadly's profile
Dr Ebu Avci's profile

Why Massey?

People were what led Muhammad to choose Massey University for his PhD, and he found the support for his research “unprecedented”, especially from the Graduate Research School and the School of Food and Advanced Technology.

“I’m a people-centric person and I like to work with people. Facilities and resources are important, but they are secondary. Doing a PhD is not easy, especially when you want to do wonders with your limited capabilities. In my journey, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a gifted bunch of individuals who were absolutely helpful and supportive of me attaining my goals.”

Muhammad was used to living in Karachi, one of the world’s busiest cities, home to several times the population of Aotearoa New Zealand. He had to adjust to leaving the place of his birth and home of 33 years.

“Palmerston North is a small town-like city, but I like it. It has its own culture and values and I’m always eager to learn more about diversity.”

He says the continuous support from his supervisory panel helped smooth the transition to regional New Zealand, as well as setting him in the right direction for his research topic. As he reached the point where his working prototype was ready to test on animals, animal science expert Associate Professor David Thomas joined Dr Al-Bahadly and Dr Avci on the supervisory team.

“When I look back at those three years, I think what I have achieved is due to the continuous help from the people around me; my teammates at the Microrobotics Lab, my supervisory team, the support team at GRS and my Pakistani and Muslim communities, who always encouraged and supported me to achieve more. Sometimes, you need extra inspiration to push your own limits. This became possible with the support of people around me.”

Ultimately, Muhammad and his supervisory team will consider commercialising the wireless capsule robot technology for widespread use to benefit people's quality of life, and potentially save lives. After his PhD, he plans to join his alma mater in Pakistan to continue his research interests.

“To the potential researchers in New Zealand and around the world: Give it a go, Massey will transform you into a better version of yourself.”

Awards and accolades

Published 25 January 2022.