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Micro-Robot Designed to Aid Internal Laser Surgery

Microrobotic laser device

Microrobotic laser device, right, fits on standard endoscope system at left. (Wyss Institute, Harvard University)

14 Jan. 2021. An engineering team demonstrated a small robotic device that fits on current surgical equipment to improve laser surgery inside the body. Researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University describe the device in yesterday’s issue of the journal Science Robotics.

A team from the lab of Harvard robotics professor Robert Wood is seeking to improve current devices used in minimally invasive surgery, providing more precision, dexterity, and range of motion. Wood’s microrobotics laboratory studies mechanics, electronics, actuation, and controls of small-scale devices, often with the Wyss Institute, where Wood is affiliated. In this case, the authors, led by postdoctoral researcher Peter York, apply techniques developed for micro-scale manufacturing for controlling laser surgery tools deployed inside the body.

The challenge for the researchers is to find a solution that combines mechanical control of a laser surgical device with more real-time visual feedback than current devices that often provide only line-of-sight images. The system also needs to offer more flexibility, responsiveness, and range of motion. In addition, the device needs to be small enough to fit on and work with current surgical equipment, thus avoiding a large new investment.

The team’s device is an optical electro-mechanical system with an integrated optical fiber to deliver a surgical laser. The system’s visual feedback is provided with three tiny mirrors that capture and send back real time images. And the device is controlled with piezoelectric actuators powered from energy generated from mechanical stresses. To make the device small enough to fit on current surgical equipment, such as endoscopes, the researchers used techniques by the lab from fabricating microelectromechanical systems originally developed for producing electronic circuits.

6 x 16 millimeter cylinder

The team’s device is built into a cylinder that measures 6 millimeters in diameter and 16 millimeters long. The researchers demonstrated the device integrated with an off-the-shelf endoscope system for laser surgery in a simulated colonoscopy. The team demonstrated removal of a polyp in the simulated surgery with both standard manual control of the device, as well as in high-speed robotic surgery following a programmed incision trajectory.

“To enable minimally invasive laser surgery inside the body,” says York in a Wyss Institute statement, “we devised a microrobotic approach that allows us to precisely direct a laser beam at small target sites in complex patterns within an anatomical area of interest. With its large range of articulation, minimal footprint, and fast and precise action, this laser-steering end-effector has great potential to enhance surgical capabilities simply by being added to existing endoscopic devices in a plug-and-play fashion.”

Harvard University applied for a patent on the technology, with York and Wood listed as inventors. The researchers say they’re refining the system to advance it further as a working surgical device.

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