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10 Unbelievable Robots Transforming Medicine


November 8, 2009

Forty years ago, the first message was sent via ARPANET, the network that would soon become known as the Internet. The message that should have read "login" was transmitted just as "lo." Look at how far we’ve come; technology today has not only advanced to allow instantaneous communication, relational networking, and educational resources at our fingertips, but it also saves lives. Ideas that once marked conspiracies of alien invasion are now everyday practice. Machines that once rested only in the minds of the world’s most brilliant scientists now make their ways into hospitals for affordable treatment of life-threatening illnesses like cancer. While always looking forward to the future, sometimes we must pause to look at technology today, take a deep breath, and give thanks for these modern medical marvels.

  1. Da Vinci Surgical System: This system consists of a surgeon’s console that is typically in the same room as the patient and a patient-side cart with four interactive robotic arms controlled from the console. Three of the arms are for tools that hold objects, act as a scalpel, scissors, bovie, or unipolar or dipolar electrocautery instruments. The fourth arm is for an endoscopic camera with two lenses that gives the surgeon full stereoscopic vision from the console. The surgeon sits at the console and looks through two eye holes at a 3-D image of the procedure, meanwhile maneuvering the arms with two foot pedals and two hand controllers. The da Vinci System scales, filters and translates the surgeon’s hand movements into more precise micro-movements of the instruments, which operate through small incisions in the body.
  2. Stereotaxis Magnetic Navigation System: This is an emerging technology in interventional cardiology. Catheters with magnetic tips can be steered within the patient, without the need for an electrophysiologist to maneuver the catheter or guidewire placement manually. Unlike other robotic navigation techniques, the catheter is controlled by steering the distal tip with a magnetic field, making perforations virtually impossible.
  3. Hansen Medical Sensei Robotic Catheter System: The Sensei Robotic Catheter System uses a system of pulleys to navigate a steerable sheath for catheter guidance and provides the physician with more stability and more force in catheter placement with the Artisan sheath compared to manual techniques, allowing for more precise manipulation with less radiation exposure to the doctor, commensurate with higher procedural complications to the patient, including cardiac perforations, tamponade and femoral artery injuries.
  4. NeuroArm: NeuroArm is an MRI-compatible image-guided computer-assisted device specifically designed for neurosurgery. It performs both microsurgery and biopsy-stereotaxy applications. The system includes a workstation, a system control cabinet, and two remote manipulators mounted on a mobile base. For biopsy-stereotaxy, either the left or right arm is transferred to an extension board that attaches to the OR table and the procedure is able to be performed inside the MRI bore.
  5. CyberKnife Robotic Radiosurgery System: The CyberKnife is a non-invasive alternative to surgery for the treatment of both cancerous and noncancerous tumors anywhere in the body, including the prostate, lung, brain, spine, liver, pancreas and kidney. The treatment delivers beams of high dose radiation to tumors with extreme accuracy.
  6. Twendy-One (the Nursebot): This bedside nurse-bot, has soft fingertips nimble enough to delicately grip a drinking straw and arms with the strength to lift an adult out of bed. The machine is designed to help Japan’s growing population of frail and elderly continue to live in their own homes. Researchers at Waseda University in Tokyo say Twendy-One can clean floors, carry patients, and even bring them breakfast in bed. The next task is refining the software and mechanics to allow it to safely respond to commands to do things like fetch medication or refreshments.
  7. CAVEman 3-D Virtual Patient: Doctors and diagnosticians can do a virtual ‘walk-through’ of the body, looking for clues to the processes underlying medical concerns. As the technology becomes widely available, body scans will be more affordable and less invasive than the techniques currently used.
  8. Laser-Beam Psychiatry: To demonstrate this technology, the scientists genetically engineered Parkinson’s-afflicted mice with light-sensitive cells and inserted an optical fiber inside their brains. When blue laser light struck cells connected to the motor cortex, a brain region responsible for movement, the mice stopped shaking.
  9. Turbo Power Physical Therapy: This robot is designed to train healthy regions of the brain to slowly pick up the slack for damaged areas and quickly restore control over muscles. A user straps into the powered arms and repeats exercises meant to stimulate new connections between brain cells.
  10. Fluorescence-Assisted Resection and Exploration: In the operating room, the physician injects a patient’s tumor with dyes that tag lymph fluid and glow when exposed to near-infrared light. The FLARE device has three infrared cameras, each calibrated to pick up different frequencies of light. On a video screen, the nerves to be avoided appear fuchsia, while a bright green shines from the tumor and outlines its drainage path to the sentinel lymph nodes, those most likely to collect cancer cells.