Hong Kong University Developing ‘Minimally Invasive’ Surgery Robots

A team of surgeons and engineers at Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute (PolyU) is creating robots that they claim will “minimize surgical trauma and improve the safety of current robotic surgery.”

These robots – referred to as “novel surgical robotic systems” or “NSRS” for short – would be able to perform surgery through an incision that is no wider than three centimeters, half the size of an incision that is normally considered “minimally invasive.”

Certain procedures may not even require any cutting, as the robots can enter people’s bodies through natural orifices.

Doctors hope that the less-invasive techniques used by these robots could reduce post-operative trauma, which is normal in patients after surgery.

NSRS machines have three or more arms, which can be removed before surgery. Once a tiny incision has been made, the robot’s parts can be inserted through the cut, and its arms can be reattached inside the patient’s body. While inside, doctors can maneuver the machines through the patient’s abdominal cavity.

The robots are controlled by surgeons via a control board. A camera gives doctors a three-dimensional image of the patient’s insides.

The machines are also equipped with “haptic feedback,” which measures the amount of force the robot is using and reduces the likelihood of injury.

“It is comparable to handling eggs,” said Professor Yung Kai-leung, who headed the NSRS project. “Too much force would crush the shell, while with too little force we are unable to take away what needs to be removed. Blood vessels and tissues are also fragile, requiring that surgeons handle them warily,”

Since December of last year, the university has been trial testing these robots on animals. According to PolyU’s website, NSRS have been successfully used in three consecutive animal experiments, one of which involved a live pig.

“In the most recent successful experiment conducted on 3 February, 2016, robotic cholecystectomy was successfully completed within one hour in a live pig with NSRS.”

NSRS could be an improvement over the current surgical robotic system on the market, which is not only expensive, but lacks many of the new system’s features. Unlike NSRS, the current robotic surgical system is bulky, requires multiple incisions, and does not have any haptic feedback.

NSRS could replace other robotic surgical systems.
NSRS could replace bigger more expensive robotic surgical systems that require many incisions. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Those looking for less-invasive surgery will have to wait, though, as NSRS still needs further refinement before it can be used on people.

Professor Law Wai-lun, who participated in the NSRS project and is the director of the Surgical Skills Centre at the University of Hong Kong, says NSRS are still in a “research period.” He also implied the robots are not yet ready for complicated procedures, saying that scientists will “slowly step up the procedures to more complicated procedures.”

However, Professor Law hopes NSRS can be a part of the surgical practice in the near future.

“We will continue to test the new robotic system in animal and cadaver models for more complicated procedures, using a single-incision and natural orifice approach. Our objective is to apply this system to various robotic surgeries in human in the near future.”

With safety still a concern and their ability to perform complex surgical procedures still in question, there is no telling when or if these “novel” robots will replace surgery as it is done today.

There is also no telling how patients will feel about having these robots inside of them.

Professor Yung, however, is optimistic.

“The development of NSRS is one obvious example of applying space technologies and we are delighted to note that this PolyU engineering innovation will help turn a new page in minimally invasive surgery, thus enhancing the well-being of patients.”

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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