A robot designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University has performed incredibly intricate surgery on a pig—without human assistance. And it may just be the future of laparoscopic surgery. The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) performed an incredibly tricky gastrointestinal procedure four times to demonstrate its surgical prowess. The researchers published their findings in Science Robotics.
Intestinal anastomosis is a procedure during which the surgeon reconnects two previously disconnected ends of the intestine. Notably, it requires a very intense level of precision during the suturing process. Sounds fairly straightforward, right? It’s not quite that simple. The Johns Hopkins release indicated that anything short of perfection could lead to a devastating (and potentially deadly) result for the patient. So suffice to say, that the robot was able to pull this off is pretty remarkable. Not only did STAR perform it once, but it did so four times. And out-performed humans doing the same procedures. It sounds like robot surgery may soon be on the menu.
This is especially notable considering the sensitive nature of soft-tissue surgery. As Axel Kreiger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins, notes in the Hopkins release, it’s a surgery that requires the surgeon to be adaptable, and quick-thinking in case complications arise. Robots, of course, are not naturally known for their ability to think quickly on their feet. But STAR certainly proves the exception to the rule thanks to its novel control system.
“Robotic anastomosis is one way to ensure that surgical tasks that require high precision and repeatability can be performed with more accuracy and precision in every patient independent of surgeon skill,” said Krieger. “We hypothesize that this will result in a democratized surgical approach to patient care with more predictable and consistent patient outcomes.”
The STAR project is a collaboration between Krieger, Jin Kang, a Hopkins professor of electrical and computer engineering, and the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. This particular model is an update on their 2016 robot, which could repair pig intestines but not without human assistance.
To be quite honest, the idea of more automated surgeries sounds more than a little ominous. But given STAR’s success, we’re optimistic. After all, a messy fictional doctor once said, “It’s a beautiful day to save lives.” I’m inclined to think STAR agrees.