Robotic pincers make removing tumours a snip

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2011, 12:00am


Robotic pincers inspired by crab claws and developed in Hong Kong and Singapore have successfully removed tumours from the digestive systems of five patients, nipping the operation time as much as sixfold.

Researchers who developed the device say its ability to turn in many more directions than existing equipment inserted in the body allows more precision and reduces risk of potentially fatal complications. And procedures that take as much as 99 minutes can now be done in 16.

The operations, three in India and two in Hong Kong, were performed on patients in the early stages of gastrointestinal cancer. None suffered from complications, which affect 5 per cent of such patients.

The researchers say the device, which like existing equipment is inserted into the intestine in a tube, gives a better view of the sub-mucosal plane, a layer of connective tissue in the intestine. 'As the old endoscope only allows single-degree movement, most operative time was spent in maintaining a better sight of the sub-mucosal plane while moving the endoscope,' said Professor Philip Chiu Wai-yan, director of Chinese University's department of surgery.

'But the newly designed robotic arms are much more flexible and able to turn in many directions, which helps doctors perform more complex procedures,' Chiu said.

The delicate pincers, controlled remotely, can twist to retract tiny tissues around the tumours, allowing doctors a clearer view to cut only what they need to.

Chiu, one of the researchers, said a crab's claws inspired the invention.

The operation on the first Hong Kong patient took 50 minutes to remove the tumour, while the second took only 16. Both patients were able to eat a day after the procedure.

More patients with early gastrointestinal cancer will be picked for operations as the research goes on.

Chiu believes it will take at least five years for the system to develop further before being widely used.