Skepticism, Medicine and Science News

Like A Surgeon

Robotics have become a huge help when it comes to medical procedures, and are commonly, to a certain extent, used for example in procedures that require absolute precision. Swallowing mechanical devices are also not uncommon, generally in the form of a small camera that takes pictures of the gastrointestinal tract to help doctors locate ulcers/tumors and so on. One problem, or maybe disadvantage is more correct, with these cameras has up until now been that they are passive, ie they take pictures of what’s in front of them, and that’s about it. In a new publication by the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) of ETH Zurich, researchers describe how we might design and engineer microrobots that would be able to play an active role in the body, maneuvering themselves to specific regions to take pictures and even tissue samples. 

One of their ideas is to fit a small robot with insect-like legs to help it navigate the gastrointestinal tract. This would enable doctors to actively control or preset the movement of the robot, and thus guide it to specific regions where they suspect the problem is. Another idea is to also fit the robot with equipment to obtain a tissue sample, something that would otherwise require an invasive procedure.

One of the major problems with this kind of application of robotics is naturally the size aspect. You can’t make the robot to big, or the patient will not be able to swallow it. One possible solution to this problem is to design the robot in a way that would enable self-assembly in the gut. This would mean that the patient could swallow three or four smaller pieces that would then assemble to form the complete robot in the stomach. Zoltan Nagy, a researcher with the IRIS, designed a system that used magnets to accomplish this self-assembly. The individual parts where polarized in a way that made them organize into a predictable structure once in the gut, and when tested, in an artificial stomach, this had about a 75% success rate. 

Another major problem is the power supply. Batteries make up about 60% of the size of today’s pill-cameras, and a lot more power would be needed to supply a robot capable of taking biopsies. Another problem is patient safety. No damage to the wall of the gastrointestinal tract should be done by the robot, and there would also have to be some mechanism of disassembling the robot at any time if something were to go wrong. 

Still, maybe some years from now this will be a reality. Full paper can be found here.


December 1, 2008 - Posted by | Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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