Robot makes step to more automated operating room

Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press

Washington – — Getting stitched up by Dr. Robot may one day be reality: Scientists have created a robotic system that did just that in living animals without a real doctor pulling the strings.

Much like engineers are designing self-driving cars, Wednesday’s research is part of a move toward autonomous surgical robots, removing the surgeon’s hands from certain tasks that a machine might perform all by itself.

No, doctors wouldn’t leave the bedside — they’re supposed to supervise, plus they’d handle the rest of the surgery. Nor is the device ready for operating rooms.

But in small tests using pigs, the robotic arm performed at least as well, and in some cases a bit better, as some competing surgeons in stitching together intestinal tissue, researchers reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

In fact, said the authors of a new study, the STAR system — it stands for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot — has the potential to speed some of surgery's most time-consuming work, doing it with fewer mistakes and potentially reducing costly and dangerous surgical complications. It could not only make surgery safer, but reduce its cost, said the developers of surgery's newest trainee.

To be sure, that is a claim that has been made for existing robotic surgical systems, which can cost more than $1 million to purchase and $100,000 to maintain. But while not all have lived up to such promises, none have been designed to work so independently of surgeons before.

“The purpose wasn’t to replace surgeons,” said Dr. Peter C. W. Kim of Children’s National Health System in Washington, a pediatric surgeon who led the project. “If you have an intelligent tool that works with a surgeon, can it improve the outcome? That’s what we have done.”

If you’ve heard about machines like the popular Da Vinci system, you might think robots already are operating. Not really. Today many hospitals offer robot-assisted surgery where surgeons use the machinery as tools that they manually control, typically to operate through tiny openings in the body.

So why the push for next-generation autonomous robots? Proponents think there are cases where a machine’s precision may outperform a human hand.

Wednesday’s project is “the first baby step toward true autonomy,” said Dr. Umamaheswar Duvvuri of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a head and neck surgeon and robotic specialist who wasn’t involved with new work.

But don’t expect to see doctors ever leave entire operations in a robot’s digits, he cautioned.

Because it’s designed to do one specific task — stitch up tissue — the machine is a lot like the automation trend in other industries. Robot arms do the welding and painting in most U.S. car assembly lines, for example.

Los Angeles Times contributed.