British scientists have developed the world’s smallest surgical robot which could transform everyday operations for tens of thousands of patients.
From a converted pig shed in the Cambridgeshire countryside, a team of 100 scientists and engineers have used low-cost technology originally developed for mobile phones and space industries to create the first robotic arm specifically designed to carry out keyhole surgery.
The robot, called Versius, mimics the human arm and can be used to carry out a wide range of laparoscopic procedures – including hernia repairs, colorectal operations, and prostate and ear, nose and throat surgery – in which a series of small incisions are made to circumvent the need for traditional open surgery. This reduces complications and pain after surgery and speeds up recovery times for patients.
The robot is controlled by a surgeon at a console guided by a 3D screen in the operating theatre.
Although surgical robots already exist, the new creation is much easier to use, takes up about a third of the space of current machines and will be no more expensive than non-robotic keyhole surgery, according to its maker Cambridge Medical Robotics.
“Having robots in the operating theatre is not a new idea,” said the company’s chief executive, Martin Frost. “The problem at the moment is that they are phenomenally expensive – not only do they cost £2m each to buy but every procedure costs an extra £3,000 using the robot – and they are very large. Many hospitals have to use the operating theatre around the robot. Their size can also make them difficult for the surgical team to use.
“They are also poorly utilised; they are only really used for pelvic surgery, and can’t be easily adapted to other types of surgery. In some hospitals they are only being used once every other day.”
For robots to revolutionise surgery, he said, they need to be versatile, easy to use and small so that surgical staff can move them around the operating room or between operating theatres, or pack them away when they are not being used. “Our robot does all of this and is the first robotic arm to be designed specifically for laparoscopic surgery,” Frost said.
One of the key benefits of the robot is that it works like a human arm and contains technology that detects resistance to make sure the right amount of force is used when the instruments are inside the patient.
“When science wants to solve a problem, it often turns to nature,” said Luke Hares, chief technology officer at CMR. “We took our inspiration from the human arm, the greatest surgical tool in history.”
Image Credit: Cambridge Medical Robotics