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Robot Assistants in Operating Room Promise Safer Surgery

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 05 Jan 2023
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Image: MUSA’s robotic arms (Photo courtesy of Microsure)
Image: MUSA’s robotic arms (Photo courtesy of Microsure)

At present, some manual operations are so difficult they can be performed by only a small number of surgeons worldwide, while others are invasive and depend on a surgeon’s specific skill. Now, advanced robotics are providing tools that have the potential to enable more surgeons to carry out such operations and do so with a higher rate of success. With extreme precision needed for certain medical operations, state-of-the-art robots offer a way to make surgery easier, safer and more successful. For instance, the EU-funded Ganymed project is developing a compact robot to make joint-replacement operations more precise, less invasive and – by extension – safer. Similarly, the EU-funded MEETMUSA project has been further developing what it describes as the world’s first surgical robot for microsurgery certified under the EU’s ‘CE’ regulatory regime.

The initial focus of the Ganymed project is on a type of surgery called total knee arthroplasty (TKA), though Ganymed Robotics (Paris, France) is looking to expand to other joints including the shoulder, ankle and hip. Ageing populations and lifestyle changes are accelerating demand for such surgery. Ganymed’s robot will aim to perform two main functions: contactless localization of bones and collaboration with surgeons to support joint-replacement procedures. It comprises an arm mounted with ‘eyes’, which use advanced computer-vision-driven intelligence to examine the exact position and orientation of a patient’s anatomical structure. This avoids the need to insert invasive rods and optical trackers into the body.

Surgeons can then perform operations using tools such as sagittal saws – used for orthopedic procedures – in collaboration with the robotic arm. The ‘eyes’ aid precision by providing so-called haptic feedback, which prevents the movement of instruments beyond predefined virtual boundaries. The robot also collects data that it can process in real time and use to hone procedures further. Ganymed has already carried out a clinical study on 100 patients of the bone-localization technology that has achieved the desired precision. The company is now performing studies on the TKA procedure, with hopes that the robot will be fully available commercially by the end of 2025 and become a mainstream tool used globally.

Robots are being explored not only for orthopedics but also for highly complex surgery at the microscopic level. Microsure (Eindhoven, the Netherlands) is developing MUSA, the world’s first surgical robot for microsurgery certified under the EU’s ‘CE’ regulatory regime. The small, lightweight robot is attached to a platform equipped with arms able to hold and manipulate microsurgical instruments with a high degree of precision. The platform is suspended above the patient during an operation and is controlled by the surgeon through specially adapted joysticks.

In a 2020 study, surgeons reported using MUSA to treat breast-cancer-related lymphedema – a chronic condition that commonly occurs as a side effect of cancer treatment and is characterized by a swelling of body tissues as a result of a build-up of fluids. To carry out the surgery, the robot successfully sutured – or connected – tiny lymph vessels measuring 0.3 to 0.8 millimeter in diameter to nearby veins in the affected area. When such delicate operations are conducted manually, they are affected by slight shaking in the hands, even with highly skilled surgeons. With the robot, this problem can be avoided. MUSA can also significantly scale down the surgeon’s general hand movements rather than simply repeating them one-to-one, allowing for even greater accuracy than with conventional surgery.

In addition to treating lymphedema, the current version of MUSA – the second, after a previous prototype – has been used for other procedures including nerve repair and soft-tissue reconstruction of the lower leg. Microsure is now developing a third version of the robot, MUSA-3, which is expected to become the first one available on a widespread commercial basis. This new version will have various upgrades, such as better sensors to enhance precision and improved maneuverability of the robot’s arms. It will also be mounted on a cart with wheels rather than a fixed table to enable easy transport within and between operating theatres.

Furthermore, the robots will be used with exoscopes – a novel high-definition digital camera system. This will allow the surgeon to view a three-dimensional screen through goggles in order to perform ‘heads-up microsurgery’ rather than the less-comfortable process of looking through a microscope. The company is confident that MUSA-3 will be widely used across Europe and the US before a 2029 target date. MEETMUSA is also looking into the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to further enhance robots. However, the company believes that the aim of AI solutions may be to guide surgeons towards their goals and support them in excelling rather than achieving completely autonomous surgery.

“We’re entering the next revolution in medicine,” said Sophie Cahen, chief executive officer and co-founder of Ganymed Robotics. “Demand is super-high because arthroplasty is driven by the age and weight of patients, which is increasing all over the world.”

“I think the surgeon will always be there in the feedback loop, but these tools will definitely help the surgeon perform at the highest level in the future,” said Tom Konert, who leads MEETMUSA and is a clinical field specialist at Microsure.

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