News & Commentary

New Horizon Seen For Robotic Surgery

Robotic surgery these days involves a physician’s hand guiding a mechanical arm. A recent study in Science Translational Medicine anticipates a day when the robot arm will not need that sort of human guidance, although there will always be human supervision.

Today’s robot-assisted surgeries (RASs) depend entirely on an individual surgeon’s manual capability, argued the authors of the study published in the May 4 issue of the journal.

There are always minute tremors even in the best surgeons’ hands. “Functional outcomes, including complication rates, have remained highly variable owing to human factors, such as a surgeon’s hand-eye coordination and experience,” wrote researchers at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.

The new technology developed at the center, called the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), depends on imaging technology that is guided by a computer program, not a human being. The program incorporates best surgical practices in determining when and how to suture (the technology only sutures and does not wield the scalpel).

STAR is still in the developmental stage, but it’s doing a good job on pig tissue, according to the Children’s National Medical Center researchers.

The researchers reported that STAR was better at stitching together two pieces of pig tissue than regular surgeons, and it did about as well as the human surgeons in reconnecting intestines in live pigs. Such connecting, anastomosis, is done millions of times a year in many different types of surgeries.

“This task [anastomosis] represents a proof of concept for all potential soft tissue surgical tasks requiring repetition, precision, accuracy, and efficiency that can potentially benefit from autonomous or supervised autonomous functionality,” the study said.

Researchers included some calming words for those who are worried—to borrow the sci-fi trope—that the machines are taking over.

“The intent of this demonstration of feasibility in soft tissue surgery was not to replace surgeons but to expand human capacity and capability through enhanced vision, dexterity, and complementary machine intelligence for improved surgical outcomes, safety, and patient access.”

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