Academics & Research News

Professors developing solution for invasive surgery risks

Utilizing robots for treatment instead of invasive surgery could significantly reduce the risk of human error, and therefore complications, in medical procedures. | Justin Cross/The Cougar

Sending tiny objects into the human body to treat ailments was initially an idea featured in an episode of “the Magic School Bus,” an animated show that aired on PBS. But professors at the University of Houston are working to make this concept a medical reality.

Associate engineering professor Aaron Becker, computer science professor Nikolaos Tsekos and cardiologist and Director of Cardiovascular MRI at Houston Methodist Dr. Dipan Shah are working to create tiny robots to treat patients by entering the venous system so that patients could avoid the risks of invasive surgeries.

“As a kid I loved the magic school bus,” Becker said.  “I remember when Ms. Frizzles’s school bus shrank small enough to enter a kids’ body to see and treat the body from the inside. That’s what I’d love to do.”

According to the news release, the researchers plan to design tiny robots to move through the patient’s venous system. They will control the robots using an MRI, but since an MRI does not provide enough power to push through tissue, a Gauss gun would be used to store up the required energy for the MRI to release at a specific location.

“We want to use the electromagnets present in MRI scanners to produce the magnetic field,” said Julien Leclerc, an engineering post-doctorate student. “The MRI scanner will at the same time allow Obtaining images in real time during the procedure.”

Becker said this procedure aims to eliminate risks presented by invasive surgery. Complications from surgery caused nine deaths for adults aged 45 to 64 per 100,000 people in the United States, with that number increasing with patient age, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Robotic technology is currently used by some institutions to perform minimally invasive surgeries, according to the Mayo Clinic. These robots act as tools steered by doctors to eliminate some amount of human error in procedures. Medical robots made headlines in 2015, when BBC reported that robotic surgery could be linked to 144 deaths in 14 years after computer malfunctions or broken mechanical pieces injured patients.

Becker, Tsekos and Shih’s project aims to reduce risk from human and mechanical error with their non-invasive alternative.

“I feel that this award is a unique direction,” Tsekos said. “All prior ones were focused on robots that are outside the human body, (but) this one moves to robotic technology for moving objects—a form of robots—inside the human body.”

Becker was awarded a $608,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop prototypes. The team’s goal is to build prototypes around 0.5 to 2 millimeters, and currently they have created prototypes that are 2 centimeters long. This summer, Becker hopes to create prototypes around 1 centimeter long.

“This vasculature can act as canals for steering our little submarine through the body,” Becker said. “Then, when the submarine reaches the area for the procedure, we can use mechanical tricks to do drug delivery or to perform small interventions: burst a cyst or take a biopsy.”

Once the prototypes are developed at the ideal size, the team will begin testing in animal systems. Becker and Tsekos predict the robots will not be ready for human use for another six to 10 years.

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