A new type of robot can perform tricky surgery at least as well as — and in some cases better than — human surgeons, researchers reported Wednesday.
Their new robot system isn't quite ready for prime time, but they say it could be operated with minimal human supervision, performing predictable but time-consuming tasks while freeing up living surgeons for work that requires more thought.
The team, led by Dr. Peter Kim of Children's National Medical Center in Washington, compared their robot to some existing systems and to human surgeons.
It was slow but accurate, they reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. It managed to sew together the two ends of a tiny pig intestine, for instance.
It's a procedure that requires consistency, said Ryan Decker, a research engineer who worked on the project.
"Something that really helps me visualize it is if that the procedure is like trying to put together a garden hose, which has been cut. You want to have the spacing between sutures be very consistent and you want to have them to be tensioned very well and very consistently," Decker told reporters.
"It is very difficult. It requires guiding a small needle at the end of long stick tools precisely through delicate tissue," said Dr. Axel Krieger, one of the team leaders.
Current robotic systems require a surgeon to operate the machine. This new one, called Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR, can perform the procedure on its own once programmed.
It has near-infrared fluorescent lighting and a battery of cameras to help it "see" what it's doing -- without the need for a human eyes.
Part of its software includes techniques from leading surgeons, the team said.
Kim compared it to self-driving cars. "You have driverless cars coming into our lives; it starts with self-parking and now you have the technology that tells you not go to into wrong lanes," he told reporters in a telephone briefing.
"Then, ultimately it stops … by its own and then within the next couple of years I expect that as surgical tools become smarter, it will inform and work with surgeons in supporting better outcomes."
When compared to other methods, STAR was slower but accurate. In some cases, Kim said, "The machine does it better."
Robotic surgery took off at the beginning of the century but safety issues have cooled some of the ardor that fueled the rise of the industry. The non-profit ECRI Institute, which gathers medical data, says simply having a robot doesn't guarantee high-quality surgery. It says there have been many complaints about safety.
Intuitive Surgical, which makes the $2 million da Vinci system used heavily for prostate surgery, has been fighting off lawsuits related to burns and other mishaps.
Nonetheless ECRI says one in four U.S. hospitals has at least one da Vinci system.