Rise of the Medical Robot

Use of a pillcam, a swallow-able capsule with a tiny video camera that lets physicians examine the colon, is common today. But what about a pillcam that actually can do a procedure, such as attach a surgical clip to stop bleeding?

Researchers at Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering have built early versions of this surgical clip capsule as well as about two dozen other function-specific capsules—called medical capsule robots—that collect biopsies, screen for colorectal cancer with a magnet outside the body manipulating a magnet in the capsule to get better views, screen for stomach cancer with tiny jets of water moving the capsule to places of interest, or check PH levels in the gastrointestinal tract, among other uses.

These and other first-generation capsules won’t be ready for human testing for about five years, but they are real and could be in widespread use in a decade, says Pietro Valdastri, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt who did early work on the capsules with Akos Ledeczi, associate professor of computer engineering at the university, along with other team members.

Also See: ECRI’s Top 10 Technology Hazards for 2016

Now, Valdastri and Ledeczi have put the capsule hardware and software on the open source market. The hardware includes components that perform specific functions such as wireless communication, power, computations, as well as sensing and activation, according to information from Vanderbilt.

The engineers used a free open source operating system called TinyOS to develop the reusable components and realized over time that they were frequently reusing the components when making new types of capsules, Valdastri says.

“By providing a hardware and software component library and the tools to make their composition easy, Vanderbilt opens up the field of medical capsule robots to engineers and scientists who have great ideas but aren’t hardware or software experts, plus makes development costs far more affordable,” Ledeczi said in a statement from the university.

For now, research on the capsules is being done using animals and anatomical simulators of the human body, but Valdastri believes human trials to show the advantages patients would receive from the technology could be set in three or four years. He is interested in testing the capsules in the lungs and they could be appropriate for other types of organs.

The National Science Foundation supported the early research and development of medical capsule robots. More information is available here.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.