Weekly Robot Update 010
Robotic surgery is not a new field, bots have found themselves in operating rooms for over a decade. Ranging from primitive camera wielding "assistants" like Aesop to advanced multi armed remote surgery robotics like Da Vinci , these machines run the gambit in both form and function. Miniature robots that would crawl, climb, slither or wriggle through your internals are also edging their way onto the scene. We are seeing more and more medical robots for two main reasons. First, a well designed robot is much less invasive than a human doctor. In many instances, to fully practice their craft, doctors must access a patients internals with their hands. Human hands, while marvelous, are much larger than they need to be in a surgical setting. A robots appendages can be designed much smaller, allowing them to perform surgery with much less trauma to the patient.
The second killer app for medical robots is telepresence. Remote surgeries can be conducted with a robot on site, and a doctor miles and miles away. With the proper software and training to compensate for the time lag involved, Surgeons can operate robots remotely from across the globe. This can be useful if the patient is in a remote or hostile area, where a surgeon doesn't have access to them. Also, this comes in handy in specialized fields where a great deal of expertise is required, and specialists are in short supply. One surgeon could be in multiple places at once via robots, and trained techs could assist in the surgery without the surgeons specialized expertise.
This latest robot not only excels in both of those areas, it goes one step beyond. The unnamed prototype is designed by Dr. Carlo Pappone, head of Arrhythmia and Cardiac Electrophysiology at Milan's San Raffaele university. It is the first robot in history to successfully perform a medical procedure WITHOUT human control or intervention. Last month in Milan Italy, the robot treated a 34 year old man suffering from atrial fibrillation . The surgery lasted 40-50 minutes and was a complete success. Dr. Pappone's only involvement was to turn the robot on, and monitor it. He was in Boston at the time watching the process remotely.
While the specifications of the robot are still hazy, information on it's basic principle is available. Radio frequency ablation, a typical treatment for AF, involves stiff manual catheters which are maneuvered into the heart where their rigid tips emit enough radio frequency to break up the problem tissues. A procedure like this takes 3 to 5 hours and requires a full surgical team. Where as Pappone's robot uses a much less invasive soft catheter with a magnetic tip. Rather than manually steering the catheter into the patients heart, the robot uses external electromagnets to move it. This way only the smallest of tools is actually placed inside the patient and the rest of the process is done without even touching him. In the same way that a compass needle points to magnetic north, the robot guides the tiny catheter into the heart. The process takes 1/5th as long as a standard treatment, and can now be done without a single doctor scrubbing up.
Although Dr. Pappone has conducted over 40 radio frequency ablations with the robot, this is the first one without a human guiding the process. "It has learned to do the job thanks to experience gathered from operations on 10,000 patients," Pappone said. He has included all of his accumulated knowledge into the programing of the robot. Dr. Pappone has said that the robot has the expertise of several human surgeons incorporated into its software. The prototypes programing is so advanced, that it can now reconfigure itself on the fly after scanning and recognizing particular types of patients. The machine is nearing the end of its prototype stage, and if all goes as planed, will go on sale later this year.
Dr. Pappone points out that in addition to the wow factor, and the improvement over human RFA techniques, that the robot will also be able to provide treatment to thousands of children with heart irregularities in remote regions like Africa. Given the choice, so long as its operations are transparent and logged, I would choose a well designed autonomous robot doctor over the human variety. Especially if it was less invasive, safer, and faster than even a team of surgeons. Something like this could also go a long way to reducing surgical costs and thus be more accessible to everyone. If they continue performing as well as this one, perhaps in the future robotic surgeons will be the rule instead of the exception. Domo Arigato Doctor Roboto. [inspired by Discovery Reports]
“A good surgeon operates with his hand, not with his heart” - Alexandre Dumas, pere