Technology is a key element in modern medicine, but robots may still seem like something out of a sci-fi movie. Robotics is touching many of the medical disciplines, including surgery, diagnostics, pharmacology, patient care and disease management. It is used to train the next generation of medical professionals and to help current clinicians be more intuitive. What is the future of robotics in the medical device industry?
Robots in the Lab
Researchers at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales have developed two robots that may revolutionize the bioscience industry. Adam and Eve are robot scientists that form hypotheses and then select and execute experiments using the lab automation equipment. They analyze the results to draw conclusions once the testing is complete.
Adam is credited for identifying the genes that encode locally orphan enzymes in yeast. Eve’s synthetic biology screens combine computational, target-based and cell-based assays.
Robots in the Surgical Theater
Chemist George Whiteside with Harvard University pioneered robot technology to improve minimally invasive surgical techniques. Robots are not new to the surgical arena, but the current technology consists of rigid metal tools that interact poorly with soft tissue. They require very sophisticated feedback mechanisms to measure the proper amount of force to use during a surgery.
Whiteside’s approach involves a rubbery model made of elastomers controlled by compressed air. The result is squishy medical devices that are kinder to organic tissue. This model is being commercialized for use in surgical departments by Soft Robotics, Inc., a Boston-based start-up company. The soft approach reduces the chances of soft tissue damage during a procedure. They are less expensive to make, as well. The soft appendages are printable using 3-D technology.
Robots in Diagnostics
Stanford engineer Ada Poon is creating medical nanobots that work wirelessly. These injectable nanodevices can move through the veins and gather diagnostic information along the way. In the future, they may even be able to inject drugs directly into the bloodstream or into a vital organ as needed.
Poon is expanding her designs to include nanodevices able to perform minor surgeries via radio waves, as well. When researching the first generation nanobots, she realized that body cells were receptive to radio waves.
Poon’s design is just one in a number of nanodevices that improve patient outcomes. Smart pills, for example, have a microchip that transmits physiological data to a smartphone or computer. This allows caretakers and practitioners to see exactly what medication is taken by each patient.
Doctors already use wireless video transmitters to see inside the intestinal tract of patients with acute medical problems or that cannot tolerate more invasion screening procedures. The camera allows them to see the entire digestive tract in one shot, eliminating the need for an upper or lower GI series to detect ulcers and growths.
Robots have come a long way from those old sci-fi movies. What used to take hours may now take minutes with a little robotic technology.