New robotic, steady-hand systems to aid surgeons

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Johns Hopkins University researchers are designing new high-tech medical tools to equip surgeons of tomorrow in the operating room. These systems and instruments have the potential to make current procedures safer, and to enable procedures that are now impossible, according to a release.

The tools in development include a snakelike robot that could enable surgeons, operating in the narrow throat region, to make incisions and tie sutures with greater dexterity and precision. Another robot, the steady-hand, may curb a surgeon’s natural tremor and allow the doctor to inject drugs into tiny blood vessels in the eye, dissolving clots that can damage vision.

These and other projects are being built by teams in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology, based at Johns Hopkins.

The researchers are developing detailed visual displays to guide doctors before and during a challenging medical procedure and planning digital workstations that would give the physician instant access to an enormous amount of medical information about the patient.

Because most of the new medical tools are linked to computers, their work can easily be recorded. Later, these records would be checked against data describing how well a patient responded to the treatment.

“We could produce the equivalent of a flight-data recorder for the operating room,” said Russell H. Taylor, a professor of computer science and director of the center. “We’re not trying to replace or automate surgeons. We want to work in partnership with surgeons to help them do their work more effectively. Human hands are remarkable, but they have limitations. There are times when it would be useful to have a ‘third hand,’ and we can provide that. Sometimes a surgeon’s fingers are too large to work in a small confined space within the body. We can help by building tools that act like unhumanly small and highly dexterous hands,” he adds.

The snakelike robot shows promise in throat surgery. During current throat surgery doctors must insert and manually manipulate long inflexible tools and a camera into this narrow passageway. However, with the snakelike robot could enter the throat with two thin rods tipped with tentaclelike tools capable of moving with six degrees of freedom. Doctor would sit at a robotic workstation during the procedure and peer into eyepieces that display a 3D view of the operating site. The doctor would then control movement of the robot. The prototype is made of nonmagnetic metals so that it can be used safely near magnetic imaging equipment.
Both systems require as much as five more years of lab testing and prototype advancement, according to the researchers.