Robot-assisted surgery is increasingly common in hospitals, but it's always under the control of a human surgeon. Now, a robot has sewn up incisions in a live pig's gut, all by itself. Getting robots to autonomously perform surgery on soft tissue — like, say, your guts — is tricky. First, it's hard to tell some parts form others. Second, it's damn slippery in there, which makes it hard to keep track of where everything is, compounding the problem.
The researchers at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington DC haven't let the robot carry out a full operation unguided, then. Instead, they added fluorescent tags to the surface of a pig's guts, which allowed their Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot — or STAR to its colleagues (not the one pictured above) — to see exactly what was happening via 3D cameras and near-infrared imaging.
In fact, using information from those sensors STAR was able to stitch up a surgical cut in the gut of four different pigs, unaided. Comparison with human surgical work revealed that it was at least consistent, placing sutures more evenly than its meat-space counterparts.
But it was slow — really quite slow. A procedure that can be performed in eight minutes by a human surgeon took the robot 50 minutes. Still, if it could speed up, the robot could be used to, say, finish up an operation while a surgeon preps for the next. The results are published in Science Translational Medicine.
Now the team plans to develop STAR for testing in humans, where the researchers reckon the 'bot could be used to help medics perform simple surgeries such as appendectomies. Don't all sign up at once.
Image: Medical Illustration, Wellcome Images