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Next Gen Energy-Based Surgical Robots to Perform Operations without Touching Human Tissues

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 09 Jun 2023
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Image: WPI researcher Loris Fichera has received a grant to enable surgical robots to treat disease by focusing energy on tissues (Photo courtesy of WPI)
Image: WPI researcher Loris Fichera has received a grant to enable surgical robots to treat disease by focusing energy on tissues (Photo courtesy of WPI)

Current surgical tools that utilize concentrated energy, such as lasers, radiofrequency, or ultrasound probes, operate by heating and destroying tissue during surgical procedures. Now, a new generation of energy-based surgical robots will be able to better understand and monitor the effects of heat on body tissues, enabling surgeons to perform minimally invasive surgeries with greater precision and without harming healthy tissue.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI, Worcester, MA, USA) researcher Loris Fichera has been awarded a USD 599,663 grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF, Alexandria, VA, USA) for a five-year project that aims to create a new category of surgical robots. These robots will be capable of treating diseases by delivering concentrated energy, such as light, without cutting or touching human tissues. The grant will support the exploration of integrating lasers, radiofrequency, and ultrasonic probes into surgical robots. Moreover, the project will incorporate Fichera's research into experimental devices currently under development at WPI, specifically designed for vocal cord and brain surgeries.

Building on Fichera's prior work on a robotic device for vocal fold surgery, this project will consolidate his cross-disciplinary expertise in robotics and the effects of focused energy on human tissue. Fichera will create a technique known as "virtual palpation" to enhance a surgical robot's perception. This method uses low-intensity energy pulses to create a map of a particular body area and determine the precise amount of focused energy a surgeon needs to apply. This improved perception will be used by Fichera to incorporate better control and automation into surgical robots, including a handheld laser device being developed to vaporize tumors embedded in a patient's vocal folds. Furthermore, his approach will be applied to models created for a minimally invasive robotic system that utilizes ultrasound to eliminate brain tumors.

“Robotic systems that use focused energy have the potential to transform surgery from procedures that use mechanical forces to cut and stretch tissue into something that no longer involves blood and incisions,” Fichera said. “With a new theory of how robots can interact with their surroundings, we will empower the next generation of surgical roboticists to improve human health.”

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