Robot performs 1st abdominal surgery without human help

A team from Johns Hopkins University successfully used a robot to perform a complex abdominal surgery — this time, without guidance from humans. 

The STAR, short for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, operated on the soft tissue of pigs to reconnect two ends of an intestine, which is said to be one of the most intricate and delicate tasks in abdominal surgery. 

"The STAR performed the procedure in four animals and it produced significantly better results than humans performing the same procedure," said senior author Axel Krieger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering.

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The STAR has high repetitive motion and precision capability. Along with high precision imaging for accuracy, researchers say it can adjust to soft-tissue changes in real-time. Soft-tissue can be tricky to operate on — for humans or a robot — because the subtle movements in the texture are unpredictable. 

Soft tissue surgery complications such as leakage along the seams occur nearly 20% of the time in colorectal surgery and 25 to 30% of the time in abdominal surgery, researchers said in 2016

It was then that Johns Hopkins University researchers first proved a robot surgeon could, in fact, adjust to and handle the real-time intricacies of operating on soft tissue. Now, their latest experiment without human intervention is a "significant step forward fully automated surgery on humans," the university wrote

The model of STAR that successfully completed the 2022 test operations on pigs is advanced from the 2016 model, which required making a large incision to access the intestine and more guidance from humans. 

The team equipped the STAR with new features for enhanced autonomy and improved surgical precision, including specialized suturing tools and state-of-the art imaging systems that provide more accurate visualizations of the surgical field, the university said.

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Robotic surgeries are becoming common practice in many hospitals across the country. 

The robotic arm allows surgeons to move into areas of the body with great precision and better articulate their instruments than simply a human hand can sometimes do.

Johns Hopkins uses robotic-assisted surgery for a wide range of procedures, including gynecologic, urological and other general procedures. 

This story was reported from Detroit.