The future of surgery looks likely to be led by machines with surgeons taking a backseat to supervise the work of high tech robots.
Currently, medical professionals integrate robotics into a number of procedures - including cardiac and gynaecological ones - by controlling and directing the movements of a mechanical arm.
But scientists at Washington’s Children’s National Medical Centre have now tested a more autonomous model that is capable of working on difficult soft tissue procedures with minimal human interference and supervision.
According to a paper published in Science Translational Medicine, the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (or STAR) was shown to perform at a level superior to that of an experienced human surgeon - it sewed more evenly and consistently.
Soft tissue surgery is particularly challenging for machines because of the unpredictable changes in movement that don’t exist in rigid tissue like bone, and as such, it hasn’t previously been attempted by an autonomous robot.
To overcome these obstacles, STAR has been equipped with a series of technologies specifically designed to help navigate soft tissue surgery including submillimetre positioning, force sensing capabilities to test the tension of sutures, and advanced suturing tools.
It also boasts a new 3D visual tracking system that replicates the way humans see to give the robot get a better sense of depth.
This technology works in conjunction with a near-infrared fluorescent imaging system that follows luminescent markers placed within the soft tissue as reference points to plan suture locations even if the tissue moves.
Custom algorithms based off best practice techniques were programmed into the robotic arm and used to perform surgery on both live pigs (all of whom survived) and ex vivo tissue.
The procedures it undertook involved the suturing of a cut running along an intestine and attaching two separated pieces of intestine.
STAR’s supervised surgeries were tested against manual laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery - which involves inserting instruments into a small incision to avoid making a large cut – and currently used robot-assisted surgery, and was found to be superior to both.
The experiment was conducted to see whether the robot could perform complex surgical tasks autonomously in soft tissue and according to the paper, the “results promise that autonomous surgery can bring better efficacy, safety, and access to the best surgical techniques regardless of human factors, including surgeon experience.”