A robot surgeon called STAR has successfully performed a complex surgery in America without the guidance of a human hand.
Pioneered by Johns Hopkins University researchers STAR, which stands for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, proved itself capable of outperforming a human surgeon in carrying out the tricky laparoscopic surgery procedure of connecting two ends of an intestine. This demands high levels of precision and accuracy, which is critical for the patient, as any hand tremor can result in leaks that could have catastrophic consequences.
What makes the STAR special is that it is the first robotic system to plan, adapt, and execute a surgical plan in soft tissue with minimal human intervention.Axel Krieger
The landmark surgery, done on the soft tissue of a pig, is a major step towards robots being ready to conduct fully automated surgery on humans.
“Our findings show that we can automate one of the most intricate and delicate tasks in surgery: the reconnection of two ends of an intestine. The STAR performed the procedure in four animals and it produced significantly better results than humans performing the same procedure,” said senior author Axel Krieger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering.
The vision-guided system – ‘designed specifically to suture soft tissue’ – has been in development since 2016. The latest model, equipped with a novel control system, can match the ability of a human surgeon in reacting quickly to cope with any ‘unexpected obstacles’ that occur during surgery.
Using robots to conduct these procedures, Krieger says, will mean ‘high precision and repeatability can be performed with more accuracy and precision in every patient independent of surgeon skill’.
He added: “We hypothesise that this will result in a democratised surgical approach to patient care with more predictable and consistent patient outcomes.”
The results of the surgery were described today in Science Robotics.
Robots shine in medical roles
The John Hopkins University breakthrough is just the latest story of robots proving their worth in the medical world in recent years.
In 2017, eye surgeons at a hospital in Oxford, England, inserted a tiny robotic retinal dissection device – or R2D2 – into a patients eye to treat a subretinal haemorrhage. The patient was the first to undergo this procedure with robotic assistance. It was also the first robot-assisted eye surgery ever to be performed under local anesthesia.
In the same year a team of researchers at the University of Utah applied technology similar to that used to machine car parts to show robotic surgeons could carry out a cranial procedure 50 times faster than a human surgeon. Meaning a surgery that would normally take two and half hours could be done in just two and half minutes. Which is game-changing, as drastically reducing the time a patient is in surgery decreases costs, human error and possibility of infections.
While last year a robot called Robin, a friendly 4 foot tall social companion robot, remotely controlled by humans – that can ‘move, talk and play with others’, showed the potential the technology has to offer in a more human role, with Robin proving a big hit in supporting the wellbeing of children and staff at an American hospital.