Robot performs bowel surgery better than human doctor

Perhaps by now you can wrap your mind around the idea of autonomous vehicles, but what about autonomous…surgeries? We're not talking about robot-assisted surgeries, which depend on a living, breathing doctor's manual capabilities; we're talking about operations performed autonomously by a robot.

The thought might freak you out, but it's happening, and researchers are now taking autonomous surgeries to a new frontier: soft tissue. According to a paper that appeared in the May 4 issue of Science Translational Medicine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), efforts to automate surgery have, thus far, "made headway for hard tissues, such as in bone cutting," but have proved more challenging for soft tissues, which are more malleable and unpredictable.

Recently, though, a supervised autonomous robot performed soft tissue surgery—and did it better than human doctors.

According to the AAAS, the so-called Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), developed by Peter Kim and Axel Krieger at Children's National Medical Center, recently "outperformed expert surgeons and current robot-assisted surgical techniques in open bowel surgery in pigs." STAR uses a robotic arm along with smart imaging technologies and florescent markers to "navigate and adapt to the complexities of soft tissue," the AAAS said.

The researchers tested their robot against three different challenges: manual surgery by expert surgeons, laparoscopy, and robot-assisted surgery with the da Vinci Surgical System. "Under supervision, STAR proved superior to all approaches in suturing and reconnecting bowel segments…in pigs," the AAAS said. "The animals survived the operation with no complications."

The research proves that with further development, autonomous robots may one day "take human error out of the operating room," and ultimately improve care for patients undergoing bowel surgery, tumor removal, and other soft tissue operations.

"By taking human intervention out of the equation, autonomous robots could potentially reduce complications and improve the safety and efficacy of soft tissue surgeries, about 45 million of which are performed in the U.S. each year," the AAAS said.

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