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Soft Touch: Squishy Robots Could Lead to Cheaper, Safer Medical Devices

A Boston-based start-up is exploring the use of rubbery biomedical tools to improve robotic surgery


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Surgical robots have performed fairly well in the operating theater in the past decade, helping physicians perform hysterectomies, prostate removals and other complex, yet minimally invasive surgeries. The technology likely has a long, promising future in the medical field, but only if the makers of these machines can solve a few key problems, in particular high costs and safety concerns.

Both of these issues arise from the rigid nature of today’s surgical robots. They rely on metal tools to interact with soft tissue and are controlled via a complicated—and pricey—system of actuators, cables and motors. Perhaps a more flexible approach is required.

Soft Robotics, Inc., a Boston-based start-up aims to find out. The company, which launched earlier this year, is developing rubbery robots for use in surgery and other biomedical applications, commercializing technology created at Harvard University’s Whitesides Research Group. Led by George Whitesides, a renowned Harvard chemist and materials scientist as well as member of Scientific American’s Board of Advisers, the group’s best-known robot is a squishy X-shaped quadruped made from elastomers—stretchy plastics—and controlled by pumping compressed air through its network of internal channels. Whitesides serves as both a board member and scientific advisor to Soft Robotics.

Hard robots require a sophisticated feedback mechanism to help them determine how much force to apply during surgery so they do not damage our delicate tissues and organs. Soft robots could take advantage of their rubbery appendages to reduce the likelihood of surgical damage, says Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. “Specifically, with medical devices, [you would be] allowing a robotic instrument to get into a small space, be reconfigurable in that space and do it in a way that’s tissue compliant.” Another advantage: Soft robots can be 3-D printed in a day or two from silicone and other materials that cost about $20.

Experiences so far with the best-known robot surgical system—Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci—have illustrated the promise and pitfalls of conventional medical robots. Da Vinci, which costs about $2 million and received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2000, allows surgeons to manipulate laparoscopic instruments and an endoscopic camera attached to four robotic arms. Intuitive Surgical claims more than 1.5 million da Vinci surgeries have been performed in major clinical centers around the world. Some 367,000 of those procedures were performed last year in the U.S., where about 2,000 systems have been installed. Most procedures were gynecologic or urologic, in particular hysterectomies and prostatectomies.

Reports indicate, however, that using a da Vinci can increase the cost of surgery by up to $2,500. In addition, Intuitive Surgical is facing several lawsuits on a range of issues, including sepsis, severe bowel injuries and punctured blood vessels, organs or arteries.

It will be some time before soft robots are capable of anything nearly as sophisticated as da Vinci, but there is a lot of interest in how this emerging technology could be used in the medical field—either on its own or combined with a surgical system like da Vinci. Soft Robotics is part of a one-year project that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) kicked off in June to study how soft robots might be used as battlefield medical tools. By next June, DARPA wants to see if soft robotics can address a number of problems that battlefield medics face, Vause says.

DARPA is interested in soft robots for a number of potential uses—in reconnaissance devices or prosthetics, for example—as part of the agency’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program launched in 2011. In fact, the Whitesides Research Group, whose work is part of M3, last year created a $100 silicon robot that could walk, change color and light up in the dark.

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