So it begins.
By now, you’ve probably read an article or two about how robots are set to take over human jobs in the years to come. It would seem logical to think that medical work would need to be strictly handled by humans instead of relying on machines, but new research suggests that might not be the case.
US scientists have developed an autonomous surgical robot designed specifically to stitch up (or suture) soft tissue, and in a test operation on pig specimens, the robot actually outperformed experienced human surgeons in the procedure.
"Our results demonstrate the potential for autonomous robots to improve the efficacy, consistency, functional outcome, and accessibility of surgical techniques," associate surgeon-in-chief Peter C. Kim from the Children's National Health System in Washington said in a press release.
"The intent of this demonstration is not to replace surgeons, but to expand human capacity and capability through enhanced vision, dexterity and complementary machine intelligence for improved surgical outcomes."
Until now, robot-assisted surgery has never been capable of handling soft tissue procedures, since the tissues tend to shift around as they’re touched and operated on. However, the new system, called Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), offers a fix for that problem.
"Until now, autonomous robot surgery has been limited to applications with rigid anatomy, such as bone cutting, because they are more predictable," said Axel Krieger, technical lead for Smart Tools at Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.
"By using novel tissue tracking and applied force measurement, coupled with suture automation software, our robotic system can detect arbitrary tissue motions in real time and automatically adjust."
Using near-infrared fluorescent (NIRF) markers, the STAR system is capable of sensing its patients in 3D, which enables accurate tracking of tissue motion and change throughout the procedure.
This feature is coupled with an algorithm that guides the robot to detect changes in force and make adjustments in real-time as the tissue shifts around.
To test out the STAR system, the researchers chose a procedure called anastomosis, which involves stitching up two tubular structures, like blood vessels. The researchers compared the robot’s surgical abilities to those of an experienced surgeon, operating on both inanimate pig tissue and live anesthetized pig specimens.
"We chose the complex task of anastomosis as proof of concept because this soft tissue surgery is performed over 1 million times in the US annually," said Kim.
In the comparisons, the researchers looked for the quality of the stitching, how long the surgery procedure took, and the number of mistakes made.
The results, which appear in the journal Science Translational Medicine, show that the robot beat the human surgeon when it came to the quality of stitching, with more consistent stitching and less mistakes made.
However, when it came to speed, the human surgeon took first place. In the experiment with live subjects, the human surgeon only needed 8 minutes to complete the procedure, while STAR took 35 minutes at its fastest.
However, the team notes that this speed cited in the study isn’t STAR’s record speed.
"We can run the robot really, really fast," one of the researchers, Ryan Decker told the Los Angeles Times. "But in this study, we really focused on… the outcomes, so we didn't run it as fast as we could."
According to Dr. Kim, since the soft tissue surgery procedure has been proven effective with robots, the next step is to further miniaturize the surgical tools and develop improved sensors. He says this technology could be brought into the clinical space within the next two years if the researchers team up with the right partner.
You can check out the STAR robot in motion below.
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