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High-Tech Robots Invading Operating Rooms

They can provide a steady 'hand' to surgeons, experts say

FRIDAY, Dec. 29, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Robots are increasingly coming to the rescue for humans undergoing delicate surgeries, say experts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Engineers and computer scientists at the university's National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology are working closely with physicians to build robotic tools that can enhance the surgeon's skills.

The tools include a snakelike robot that could allow surgeons to manipulate surgical instruments in narrow spaces such as the throat region. The robotic assistant would help surgeons make incisions and tie sutures with greater dexterity and precision.

Another tool being developed and tested is the steady-hand robot, which can grasp a needle and work in tandem with a surgeon's movements, reducing hand tremor that can complicate microsurgery. This robot could allow surgeons to inject drugs into tiny blood vessels in the eye, dissolving clots that can damage vision.

"We're not trying to replace or automate surgeons," said Russell H. Taylor, a professor of computer science and director of the center, in a prepared statement. "Human hands are remarkable, but they have limitations. There are times when it would be useful to have a 'third hand,' and we can provide that," he said.

The new medical tools also enable the surgeons' work to be recorded. This would allow doctors to analyze how well patients respond to treatment and learn which techniques and procedures are most effective.

"We could provide the equivalent of a flight-data recorder for the operating room," Taylor said.

These robotic devices will require about five more years of testing and improvements in a lab environment before they find their way into operating rooms.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic Foundation has more about robot-assisted surgery.

SOURCE: Johns Hopkins, news release, Dec. 20, 2006
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