Would you let a robot operate on you? This photo provided by Axel Krieger/Science Translational Medicine shows Dr. Azad Shademan and Ryan Decker during supervised autonomous in-vivo bowel anastomosis performed by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR). (Image below) Dr. Barry Gardiner demonstrates the Da Vinci Surgical System (Axel Krieger/Science Translational Medicine via AP/AP Photo/Charles Bennett)
Would you let a robot operate on you?
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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, the medical 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.
 
"The purpose wasn't to replace surgeons," said Dr. Peter C. W. Kim of Children's National Health System in Washington. Kim is 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. Surgeons use the machinery as tools that they manually control, typically to operate through tiny openings in the body. But robot-assisted surgery has been controversial, as some studies have shown it can bring higher costs without better outcomes.
 
So why the push for next-generation autonomous robots? Proponents think there are cases where a machine's precision may outperform a human hand.
 
The latest 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 the 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. They can find inventory in warehouses. From the driver's perspective, many cars now are able to warn drivers when they're too close to the car in front, or take control and apply the brakes to prevent a crash.
 
The new STAR system - it stands for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot - works sort of like a programmable sewing machine.
 
Kim's team at Children's Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation took a standard robotic arm and equipped it with suturing equipment plus smart imaging technologies to let it track moving tissue in 3-D and with an equivalent of night vision. They added sensors to help guide each stitch and tell how tightly to pull.
 
The surgeon places fluorescent markers on the tissue that needs stitching, and the robot takes aim as doctors keep watch.
 
Now the test: Could the STAR reconnect tubular pieces of intestinal tissue from pigs, sort of like two ends of a garden hose? Any soft-tissue surgeries are tricky for machinery because those tissues move out of place so easily. And the stitches in these connections must be placed precisely to avoid leaks or blockages, a challenge even for experts.
 
Using pieces of pig bowel outside of the animals' bodies as well as in five living but sedated pigs, the researchers tested the STAR robot against open surgery, minimally invasive surgery and robot-assisted surgery.
 
By some measures - the consistency of stitches and their strength to avoid leaks - "we surpassed the surgeons," said Children's engineer Ryan Decker.
 
The STAR approach wasn't perfect. The STAR had to reposition fewer stitches than the surgeons performing minimally invasive or robot-assisted suturing. But in the living animals, the robot took much longer and made a few suturing mistakes while the surgeon sewing by hand made none.
 
Kim, whose team has filed patents on the system, said the robot can be sped up. He hopes to begin human studies in two or three years.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What are the advantages of robotic surgeons?
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COMMENTS (7)
  • jacksonb-kut
    5/11/2016 - 08:28 a.m.

    Very, very interesting. I think there may be a few advantages of having robotic surgeons, but not without supervision. If, perhaps, the surgeons leave the robot to finish the surgery, a glitch might happen and... Well, I don't think I can type that out. I don't think I want to....

  • holdeno-3-bar
    5/12/2016 - 12:19 p.m.

    Robotic surgeons can be better than humans in that they have the potential to be much more precise under pressure. As the author talked about how a robot performed during surgery, he said that the "robotic arm performed at least as well, and in some cases a bit better, as some competing surgeons in stitching together intestinal tissue" (par. 4) Robots cannot feel emotion like humans can. Therefore, they are naturally shielded from negative feelings such as anxiety and stress while performing potentially nerve-wracking actions. This could help robots make less mistakes during surgery.
    I enjoyed this article because it discussed the field of medicine, one of my favorite subjects.

  • samanthas-1-ste
    5/17/2016 - 11:17 a.m.

    The robotic surgeons could do some procedures that a doctor may not be able to do without assistance, but Im not sure if I would want to be operated on by just a robotic machine. I would be okay with it if the doctor was doing most of it and it was there was just in case, but there is still a risk of error coming from the mechanism and the doctor.

  • nicholass2-eag
    5/19/2016 - 09:44 a.m.

    I think that the advantages of robotic surgeons is that they can scan the body and see what is wrong but the disadvantages are that it may glitch and do something wrong.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    5/23/2016 - 01:49 p.m.

    I would definitely not allow a robot to operate on me whether it was tested safe or not. The risk is too high.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    7/30/2016 - 11:08 p.m.

    As technology in electronics, farm equipment, factories, etc. continues to grow, so does technology in hospitals. While surgeries will not be performed fully by robots for many years to come, if ever, robotic technology could improve the quality and time it takes to perform a surgery. The robots that would do so are not yet ready to be used during a human surgery, but may soon assist surgeons with specific tasks of a surgery.

  • jacobp-stu
    10/04/2016 - 10:47 a.m.

    Well it usually is better than a regular surgeon but it costs a lot now in the future it will cost way less.

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