An implantable robot that helps stretch body tissue has been developed by a team of physicians and engineers at the Boston Children’s Hospital.
By slowly tugging on the tissue in question, the miniature robot is designed to lengthen tubular organs that exhibit stunted growth, offering a solution for rare birth defects affecting the esophagus and bowel, which can be debilitating to children and challenging to address surgically.
In the current standard of care for long-gap esophageal atresia, a rare defect in which part of the esophagus is missing, a child must be put into an induced coma and kept in intensive care for one to four weeks as the esophagus is manually lengthened.
In the robotic design, two rings are attached to the esophagus, which has been sewn together. A motor slowly tugs the rings apart, lengthening the esophageal tissue in the process. One of the main advantages of the new technique is that a child wouldn’t have to be sedated during the procedure.
In a recent study published this week in the journal Science Robotics, the researchers tested the device on the esophagi of pigs, who were able to eat normally and displayed no signs of discomfort while the robot was implanted.
“It’s hard to interview a pig to get all the details,” Pierre Dupont, head of the pediatric cardiac bioengineering lab and one of the authors of the paper, told Digital Trends, “but we would adjust the tension while we were there observing the pig or feeding it treats, just to make sure they weren’t in discomfort. We couldn’t notice anything. We had the option to turn the tension off while they were eating but they just weren’t bothered by it.”
Esophageal atresia is a rare defect that occurs in about 1 in 4,000 children in the United States. But treatment is complicated and requires specific surgical skills.
By designing a robot to do much of the work, Dupont and his colleagues hope to provide an automated solution that can treat patients irrespective of a surgeon’s technical proficiency with this exact procedure.
The researchers are now looking into whether their device could be used to treat the more common short bowel syndrome, which can inhibit a child’s ability to get nutrients from her food.
“If you’re bowel isn’t long enough you can’t absorb nutrients as well,” Dupont said.
The bowel is a more complicated organ than the esophagus however, so more research is needed to tailor the robot this specific procedure.