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Watch A Surgical Robot Suture A Delicate Grape–And Pretend It’s Your Uterus

It’s mesmerizing to watch this surgical device work with such precision, but what does that precision get you?

Clumsy-handed medical students often practice sutures on things like pig’s feet and banana peels. A robot surgeon in training? With tiny claws far more nimble than human fingers, it gets to practice sewing up the thin skin of a grape.

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That’s the impressive demo you can see in the video below. The robot–which is controlled by a surgeon not seen on the video–isn’t only able to put the grape back together. At the end, you can see it was actually doing it from within a narrow-mouth glass bottle.

What’s shown is a “wristed needle driver,” one of the latest FDA-approved devices that’s a part of da Vinci Surgical Systems, a platform that has been used in operating rooms since the year 2000 to help make many kinds of surgeries less invasive. With the robots, surgeons can make smaller incisions and use video feeds to navigate inside the body.

In November, the Texas Institute of Robotic Surgery said it completed one of the first surgeries–a hysterectomy–using the newest instrument. The five-millimeter device is meant to facilitate suturing after uterus removal, and features serrated jaws to aid with needle handling. With other parts of the da Vinci system, the hysterectomy only requires a single incision and, according to its manufacturer at least, is “virtually” scarless.

The FDA first approved robot-assisted hysterectomies in 2005, and da Vinci’s maker, Intuitive Surgical has heavily marketed the procedure, billing it as an easier, less painful recovery and better overall results. But da Vinci systems have many critics, both for their high cost and potentially spotty safety record. According to the New York Times, a study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared outcomes for women who had robotically-assisted hysterectomies and those who had more conventional laparoscopic surgeries. Though the study found no difference in complication rates or blood loss during surgery, it did find a huge difference in cost.

A study in 2013 from Johns Hopkins University questioned the safety record of the da Vinci system for all kinds of surgeries. The researchers found evidence to suspect that malfunctions of the device were widely underreported to the FDA at least, though they could not say what the actually rates would be.

Even so, robots will continue to get up in our uteri. The Times notes that nearly 10% of hysterectomies in 2010 were assisted by robots, compared to less than 1% in 2007.

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In a press release for Intuitive Surgical, Dr. Thomas Payne of the Texas Institute of Robotic Surgery–who was a user testing participant said: “We now have the last piece of the puzzle for Single-Site hysterectomy. This technology is a true tipping point for this procedure.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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