According to a study from Johns Hopkins University (published in Science Robotics), a robot successfully performed “keyhole” intestinal surgery on pigs without any human assistance. Additionally, the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) handled the delicate procedure “much better” than human doctors. The breakthrough marks an important step towards automated surgery that could one day help “democratize” patient care, the researchers said.
Laparoscopic or keyhole surgery requires surgeons to manipulate and stitch the intestines and other organs through tiny incisions, a technique that requires high levels of skill and has little margin for error. The team opted to do the “intestinal anastomosis” (joining the two ends of an intestine), a particularly difficult keyhole procedure.
Soft tissue surgery in general is difficult for robots due to its unpredictability. To deal with this, the STAR robot was equipped with specialized suturing tools and state-of-the-art imaging systems capable of providing extremely precise visualizations.
Specifically, it had a “3‑dimensional endoscope based on structural light and a tracking algorithm based on machine learning” to guide the robots. “We believe that an advanced three-dimensional machine vision system is key to making intelligent surgical robots smarter and safer,” said John Hopkins professor Jin Kang. In addition to that,
STAR is the first robotic system that can “plan, adapt and execute a surgical plan in soft tissue with minimal human intervention,” said first author Hamed Saeidi. Using all of this technology, the STAR robot successfully performed the procedure in four animals.
Laparoscopic surgery is minimally invasive compared to regular surgery, which helps ensure better outcomes for patients. However, because it takes so long to master it, there is a relatively small pool of doctors who can do it.
“Robotic anastomosis is a way to ensure that surgical tasks that require high precision and repeatability can be performed with greater accuracy and precision in every patient, regardless of surgeon skill,” said the lead author. John Hopkins’ Axel Krieger. “We hypothesize that this will result in a democratized surgical approach to patient care with more predictable and consistent outcomes for patients.”