Robot surgeon does superhuman job on sutures

Image: Robot surgeon at work
Surgeons Azad Shademan and Ryan Decker supervise autonomous bowel surgery performed on a piglet by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot. (Credit: Axel Krieger)

Researchers have programmed a robot to sew up intestines autonomously, with more precision than the typical human surgeon achieves. Right now, the intestines happen to be inside pigs, but some aspects of the technology could soon be used on humans.

“Within the next couple of years, I expect that as surgical tools become smarter, it will inform and work with surgeons in supporting better outcomes,” Peter Kim, a researcher at the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., told reporters this week.

Kim and his colleagues describe their surgical system – known as the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR – in a paper published online today by Science Translational Medicine.

Surgical robots have been around for a long time, but so far they’ve been used as tools rather than taking on medical tasks on their own. The surgeon typically manipulates the robot’s instruments in real time, in some cases guided by a video feed.

STAR combines a number of technologies that are already in use, including the KUKA robotic arm, and adds a layer of programming that translates near-infrared imagery of the surgical site into a course of action. When the human surgeon presses a button, the STAR robot executes a program to stitch up a break in the intestines.

Kim calls the machine a “very advanced, smart sewing machine.”

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Why robot surgeons will have human overlords

Image: Robot on 'Heartbeat'
A heart patient is prepped for a surgical procedure on an episode of NBC’s “Heartbeat” that features the University of Washington’s Raven robotic technology. (Credit: NBC / Universal Television)

A surgeon peers into a high-definition monitor, studies the ragged edge of a heart valve, and twiddles her fingers in a gizmo-laden glove. Meanwhile, miles away, a robot that looks like a cross between a loom and a torture device reproduces her every delicate move with a pair of tiny pincers, suturing up the damaged heart.

This isn’t reality. This is last week’s episode of NBC’s “Heartbeat” medical drama, featuring a version of the University of Washington’s Raven robo-surgeon that’s been souped up just for show.

The real-life world of robot-assisted surgery may not be as edgy as Hollywood makes it out to be. But it’s here, it’s profitable, and it could soon get a lot edgier.

The market leader is Intuitive Surgical, the maker of da Vinci Surgical Systems. Last week, the Silicon Valley company reported a nearly 17 percent rise in da Vinci procedures worldwide over the past year, and a 41 percent rise in quarterly profit. That boom came even though a single robot costs $2 million – a price tag that’s generated controversy in the health-care community.

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Scientists join forces to study aging brains

Image: Brain tissue
This brain tissue has undergone antibody labeling for the Aging, Dementia and TBI Study. Dark brown spots are amyloid plaques, implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease. (Credit: Allen Institute)

Scientists from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, the University of Washington and Group Health Research Institute have put together a first-of-its-kind database of brain imagery and medical data, to help unravel the potential links between brain injuries, aging and dementia.

The database for the Aging, Dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury Study is hosted at the Allen Institute’s website. For years, the institute has been mapping the connections between brain function and gene expression, but this database goes way beyond genetics.

The study’s brain samples come from a bigger study called Adult Changes in Thought. That longitudinal research effort, led by Eric Larson and Paul Crane of the Group Health Research Institute and UW, looks at health records and cognitive assessments from thousands of aging adults.

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Study says meditation helps ease back pain

Image: Meditation class
A study conducted at Group Health Research Institute found that meditation can be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication for treating low back pain. (Credit: JAMA via YouTube)

Mindfulness meditation can give a boost to treatments for chronic low back pain for a wide spectrum of patients, a study conducted by Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute has found.

The study, published today by the Journal of the American Medical Association, assessed treatment outcomes over the course of a year for 342 Group Health back-pain patients, ranging in age from 20 to 70.

The patients were divided into three groups. The control group continued their usual treatment plan, including medications and physical therapy. The other two groups went through two-hour training sessions, once a week for eight weeks, in two different types of mental techniques for addressing stress and pain.

One technique is known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which has previously been used to treat back pain as well as other conditions such as depression. CBT helps patients reframe how they think about pain to manage it more successfully. It also helps them change behaviors that may contribute to pain.

The other technique is mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR. Practitioners are trained to observe, acknowledge and accept their thoughts and feelings, including their sensation of pain. The training also promotes body awareness through yoga.

The CBT and MBSR patients were allowed to receive other types of care independent of the study.

Group Health’s researchers found that the CBT and MBSR patients were more likely to experience at least a 30 percent improvement in function, as well as in their self-reported assessments of how much they were bothered by back pain.

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Robot hand is so humanlike, it’s almost creepy

This robot hand closely follows the structure of a human hand. (Credit: Z. Xu and E. Todorov / UW)

You’ve got to hand it to the roboticists at the University of Washington: They’ve built a robotic hand modeled so closely on human anatomy, it’s almost scary.

The hand uses plastic components that are modeled to mimic human bones, with crocheted ligaments, stringy tendons and rubber skin layered on top. Servo motors pull cables to copy the movement of muscles in a real hand.

When you hook up the contraption to sensors placed strategically around a human controller’s arm and hand, the robot appendage can hold a pen, grip a softball or balance a plate with near-human dexterity. IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman says it’s the “most detailed and kinematically accurate biomimetic anthropomorphic robotic hand that we’ve ever seen.”

Here’s the almost scary part …

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Cybathlon turns spotlight on Iron Man tech

Image: Cybathlon
A Cybathlon pilot wearing an electrode-equipped cap uses a brain-computer interface to move an avatar through a computer-generated virtual obstacle course. (Credit: Cybathlon / ETH Zurich)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Imagine a contest for the kinds of technologies that would set Tony Stark’s nuclear-powered heart all aflutter in the “Iron Man” movies: exoskeletons, brain-computer interfaces, stair-climbing wheelchairs and bionic limbs, for example.

You don’t have to imagine it anymore: Swiss organizers are getting ready for the first-ever Cybathlon on Oct. 8 in Zurich.

This is no Hollywood publicity stunt: The Cybathlon is aimed at giving a boost to assistive devices and the millions of people around the world who use them. Fifty-five teams from 23 countries already have signed up for the games, and the organizers have put out the call for more teams to register.

The teams’ pilots will vie in six events that take advantage of exoskeletons, brain-wave controllers, prosthetic arms and legs, powered wheelchairs and muscle-stimulation bikes.

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A 3-D bioprinter for artificial body parts?

Image: 3D-printed ear
A human ear structure sits in a dish after it was printed with a device called the Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System. (Credit: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine)

Researchers say they’ve developed a 3-D bioprinter that can create artificial body parts with ready-made channels for getting nutrients and oxygen to the implanted cells. If the technology can be perfected, the device could solve one of the biggest obstacles to creating 3D-printed organs: how to nourish masses of manufactured tissue.

“It can fabricate stable, human-scale tissue of any shape,” Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, said in a news release. “With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for surgical implantation.”

Atala and his colleagues describe their experiments with the bioprinter, known as the Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System or ITOP, in a study published Feb. 15 by Nature Biotechnology.

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Neanderthal DNA linked to modern maladies

Image: Human and Neanderthal
Researchers say Neanderthal DNA influences modern traits. (Credit: Michael Smeltzer / Vanderbilt)

A comparison of Neanderthal DNA with the genomes of present-day patients has pointed up connections between our now-extinct cousins and modern traits ranging from addiction and depression to blood clotting and skin problems.

“Our main finding is that Neanderthal DNA does influence clinical traits in modern humans,” Vanderbilt University geneticist John Capra, the senior author of a paper published Feb. 11 by the journal Science, said in a news release.

The comparison drew upon a database that links biological samples from 28,000 patients with anonymized versions of their electronic health records. The Electronic Medical Records and Genomics Network, also known as eMERGE, is funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The network collects records from nine hospital systems across the country, including Vanderbilt University Medical Center as well as Group Health Cooperative / University of Washington Medical Center / Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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How Amazon inspired birth-control drones

Image: Drone in Ghana
Aerial vehicles are used to deliver medical supplies in Ghana. (Credit: Drones for Development)

When U.N. health experts were trying to come up with a way to deliver contraceptives to women in hard-to-reach areas of Ghana, they took a page from Amazon’s drone delivery playbook.

Their pilot project, known as Dr. One, was reportedly inspired in late 2014 by the Seattle-based online retailer’s plans for aerial package deliveries.

“We thought, ‘Hang on a minute. We can use this for something else!” Kanyanta Sunkutu, a South African public health specialist with the U.N. Population Fund, was quoted as saying in The Huffington Post’s report about the project.

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Gates and Bezos invest in cancer testing venture

Image: Sequencer
Illumina’s gene sequencers are already being used to study cancer cells, and the new venture known as Grail is expected to take the field to the next level. (Credit: Illumina)

One of the giants of gene sequencing, Illumina, has spun off a new $100 million company called Grail to create an all-in-one blood test for cancer – and its investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

The name reflects the view that such a blood test is a “holy grail” for cancer diagnosis. Grail would use ultra-deep gene sequencing to look for the characteristic nucleic acids that are shed into the blood by tumors. Those traces are known as circulating tumor DNA, or ctDNA.

If the technology is perfected, it could offer a non-invasive way to find out if a patient has cancer well before symptoms appear. That would better the chances for treatment.

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