It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but scientists and doctors are working to develop a fully autonomous robotic surgeon that operates without human assistance.
While robotic surgery has become more common, the process today still relies on robots being guided by human hands. But recent experiments using pig tissue have found that surgical stiches done by an autonomous robot were comparable, and in some cases better, than a skilled human surgeon.
Six scientists authored a study published May 4 in Science Translational Medicine where they discussed developing an autonomous robot to perform soft tissue surgery, which previously had proven to be a difficult task for a non-human due to tissue mobility and deformity.
Their creation – the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR – operates from a computer program which includes best surgical practices to help determine where and how to apply a stitch.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Peter Kim, who works at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., said the option of providing surgeons with more intelligent tools, whether semi-autonomous or fully autonomous, can produce a better outcome.
“No matter how steady a surgeon’s hands are, there is always some tremor,” Kim told Reuters Health.
For the study, the researchers performed two tests to determine whether STAR could operate on its own. The first test involved the robot stitching together two pieces of tissue harvested from a pig. Per the findings, the autonomous robot outperformed both human surgeons and semi-autonomous robots currently available for surgery.
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In the second test, the autonomous robot reconnected an interrupted intestine in four live pigs. The outcome was determined to be consistent with that of a skilled surgeon, even though the robot did make a few suturing errors and took longer than a human surgeon.
The goal, according to researchers quoted in The Week Magazine, was not to work faster than a human surgeon, but rather to determine if an autonomous robot could perform the procedure, which it did.
Human vs. Machine
Soft tissue surgery currently accounts for approximately 44.5-million surgeries performed each year in the United States. By using an autonomous robot for many of those procedures, the researchers concluded that human error could be reduced while efficiency and surgical time could be improved. In addition, autonomous robots could help in situations where access to a quality surgeon is limited.
The STAR tests centered, in part, on a procedure called anastomosis, which is common in surgeries involving the intestines, and requires reconnecting two sections of a patient’s body after surgery has been completed.
According to the Children’s National Health System, nearly 30% of gastrointestinal anastomoses can encounter complications such as leakage, strictures and stenosis.
Ryan Decker, a co-author of the STAR study, likened the procedure to reconnecting a garden hose that has been cut in two.
“If you have a more consistent and a more, well-tensioned, evenly spaced suture around the garden hose, it’s going to be able to withstand a higher burst pressure,” Decker said in the study findings.
Decker said the study’s results proved just that. The four pigs survived the surgery where the autonomous robot reconnected their intestine and had no complications a week later.
Despite its successful study findings, the chance of an autonomous robot performing a surgical procedure on a live human patient is not likely to occur any time soon.
One physician, Dr. Keith Lillemoe, chief of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, said such technology would need to be tested in a number of different models before it could be utilized in an operating room.
“Surgery is no different than any other field,” Lillemoe said. “Technology can always make us better…but we need to see more evidence.”