A study from the Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard University, and University of Sheffield, has shown that an implanted medical robot can use traction forces to stretch organs in the body, promoting tissue growth in stunted or surgically altered tubular organs. Testing which has been conducted in large animals has shown promising results, generating hope that human application is not far off. Better yet, the animal was alert and pain-free as its organ was being stretched by the implant, apparently feeling little if any discomfort from the processes induced by the medical robotic tool.
Science Robotics first reported the promising results, which serve as one example of the many intersections between robotics and medicine that could change the way certain conditions are treated. Karl Price, a Canadian scientist who specializes in Surgical Robots and Mechanical Design, worked with a team of Harvard Medical School colleagues and Boston Children’s Hospital staff to create and test the robotic implant. When tested on a pig, the teams found that the animal’s esophagus underwent a lengthening of approximately 75%. There is one condition for which these findings hold immediate significance, and that’s long gap esophageal atresia, also known as LEA.
Affecting approximately 1 in every 4,000 babies born in the U.S., newborns with LEA lack a complete esophagus, requiring the use of a feeding tube until their condition is cured. The robotic implant, which employs the use of various sensors and motors, will speed up this recovery process.
It is not a simple task, however, as the robotic implant is connected by an electric wire to other mechanical features outside of the body. Each end of the esophagus is ensnared by a ring which stimulates the growth of cells, lengthening the tubular organ as a result. The size of the esophagus and the length over which each individual requires expansion is determined by the device’s sensors.
While the robotic technology has the most immediate application in babies, it has also been projected that this robotic implant technology could be used to perform similar lengthening and widening processes upon other tubular features of the body such as veins, intestines, and arteries in adults as well. Genetic defects, surgical removal due to infection or blockage, and conditions such as short bowel syndrome are all abnormalities for which this robotic implant may serve as a cure.
This project demonstrates proof-of-concept that miniature robots can induce organ growth inside a living being for repair or replacement, while avoiding the sedation and paralysis currently required for the most difficult cases of esophageal atresia, Russell Jennings, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital told BGR. The potential uses of such robots are yet to be fully explored, but they will certainly be applied to many organs in the near future.