Robots can now perform soft-tissue surgery

5 May 2016

Soft-tissue surgery is one of the more fiddly of surgeries, with doctors needing to react in real time to minutely shifting surfaces. Despite this, it seems robots have caught up.

Robots are used in various medical treatments at the moment. Surgery on rigid surfaces like bones, for example, when schematics can be specified and adhered to.

The domain of soft-tissue surgery is so intricate and needs such ‘on the ground’ thinking that robots have not yet gotten involved, until now.

A team of scientists has just developed a robot surgeon that can react and adjust to soft tissue’s subtle, minute movement during surgery. Suturing two structures, the robot used in the study – which is published in Science Translational Medicine – proved it could essentially join up two blood vessels.

It’s not perfect yet, nothing in surgery is, with complications such as leakage along the seams occurring nearly 20pc of the time in the colorectal surgery and 25-30pc of the time in the abdominal surgery.

“There’s a wide range of skills out there among surgeons,” said Simon Leonard, a computer scientist who worked on the four-year project. Putting a robot to work in this form of surgery “really levels the playing field”.

Last year, Johnson & Johnson partnered with Google to develop robots along these lines.

Leonard and his team developed a robot with a 3D-imaging system and a near-infrared sensor to spot fluorescent markers along the edges of the tissue to keep the robotic suture needle on track.

It isn’t entirely left to its own devices, though, with a surgeon supervising the procedure in what Leonard calls a “fancy sewing machine”, which seems an understatement.

Surgery image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic