AN AUTONOMOUS robot performed more effectively than human surgeons in operations on soft tissue in live pigs in a recent study. The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) was tested against manual surgery, keyhole surgery, and robot-assisted surgery operating in a procedure called anastomosis, in which the tubular loops of the intestines in live pigs were connected together.
The research indicated that the STAR system was able to effectively outperform other methods of surgery. The consistency of suture spacing which aids healing was better performed by STAR, and the amount of pressure the joined tissue could withstand before resulting in leakage was increased. It was also able to keep mistakes requiring needle removal to a minimum whilst reductions in tube diameter of the intestines were in line with the human range.
The autonomous robot performed the anastomosis slower than manual procedures, taking 35 minutes to complete in comparison to 8 minutes taken by the latter, but took about as long as the average time for keyhole surgery, which can vary depending on the complexity of the procedure. Operating on soft tissue is expected to prove difficult for the robot as the tissue moves unpredictably, deforms in response to being touched, and requires constant adjustments by surgeons. The robot overcame this obstacle by utilising various tools such as fluorescent and three-dimensional imaging, force sensing, and submillimetre positioning. It also utilised an algorithm combined with a tracking system that facilitated independent real-time adjustments to tissue movements.
The STAR system has been designed to remove the involvement of surgeon’s hands in procedures, leaving humans in a supervisory role while the robot operates according to its self-designed surgical plan. Prof Peter Kim, Vice President of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, Washington DC, USA, explained that the intention is not to replace surgeons but to use robotics to complement human skills. “Our results demonstrate the potential for autonomous robots to improve the efficacy, consistency, functional outcome, and accessibility of surgical techniques,” he said. The researchers involved with STAR plan to continue improving the technology so that it can be used more widely and hope that the technology could be ready for clinical use within the next 2 years.