Rethinking Healthcare

Surgeons unleash snake robots into our bodies

Surgeons unleash snake robots into our bodies

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Carrying cameras, scissors, and sensors, these tiny robots slither around our insides, helping surgeons perform operations on tumors and diseased organs.

Tiny snake robots crawling through our bodies could help surgeons identify diseases and perform operations on our hearts, cancers, and diseased organs.

The creeping metallic tools carry tiny cameras, scissors, forceps, and possibly some advanced sensors. For now, they’re powered by tethers controlled by people – but one day, the snakebots will be nano-sized and allowed to roam the body on their own. AP reports.

Michael Argenziano of Columbia University Medical Center has been involved with some of the first clinical trials on robotic heart surgery over a decade ago. Now snake robots have become a commonly used tool that gives surgeons a whole new perspective.

“It’s like the ability to have little hands inside the patients,” he explains, “as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve.”

Carnegie Mellon’s Howie Choset has been building snake robots for years. He believes that these robots help reduce medical costs by making complex surgeries faster and easier. His new design is smaller (the head has the diameter of a dime) and more flexible than earlier models.

Tiny surgical robots allow surgeons to operate with less damage to the body, helping patients recover faster. Instead of opening up the entire chest for heart surgery, a small incision can be made, allowing the robot to crawl inside to the proper spot.

The precision of the tool is vital not just to cutting out cancerous tumors (in prostates, for example), but to seeing exactly what nerves to leave intact, according to Ashutosh Tewari of Weill Cornell Medical College.

He’s excited about the potential for surgical robots to do things humans can’t do: one day, the sensors available to surgical bots may test chemicals or blood in the body, or even the electrical connections in nerves.

On the other hand, studies have found that there’s a lot of variation in the cost effectiveness of surgical robots. In smaller hospitals, the high cost of purchasing and maintaining a robot may not make sense.

[Via AP]

Image: Medical Robotics Resources / Choset

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure