Innovation through Competition A European consortium has developed a prototype abdominal surgery robot which they claim simplifies surgical procedures and reduces costs and patient recovery times. Specially designed to support surgeons performing ‘single-port laparoscopies’ (SPLs) –a relatively new type of minimally invasive surgery in which the surgeon operates through a single incision, usually in the navel– the ARAKNES SPRINT system has commercial potential across a wide range of procedures, from weight-loss surgery to the removal of cancerous tumors and treating problems with the heart, liver and kidneys. Developed as part of the $10 million (EUR 8.1 million), European Commission funded Araknes project, SPRINT is currently being patented and, following successful in-vivo trials (on pigs) earlier this year, the consortium behind the robot is actively seeking venture capital to produce a commercial version.
Ad hoc, specialized robotic devices like SPRINT offer better value to the healthcare system than multi-purpose surgical robots, says Elena Troia, senior R&D manager at Ekymed, a medical devices company that’s part of the SPRINT consortium. Special-purpose vs. multi-purpose surgical robots “A multi-purpose robot represents the past. In our view, it’s important to have special purpose robots that address one or few surgical targets. The healthcare system and patients need ad hoc designed devices,” says Troia. Single purpose surgical systems can offer lower costs per surgery than multi-purpose systems, says Troia, who estimates that in its current configuration their prototype could provide abdominal surgery at a cost of between EUR3-4,000 [$3,746-4,996] per procedure, including the cost of disposable and limited use parts. The same procedure would cost EUR5,000 [$6,244] using a Da Vinci, says Troia. SPRINT integrates existing technologies in a unique architecture alongside brand-new sensor technologies, says Araknes project coordinator, Arianna Menciassi, associate professor in the BioRobotics Institute at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy. ?From the mechanical viewpoint, the most innovative feature consists of 14 degrees of freedom totally activated inside the abdomen, thanks to on-board actuators,? says Menciassi. SPRINT has two arms fitted with rotating grippers. The arms can be individually inserted via a 1.18 inch diameter umbilical access port. A panoramic camera, a 3D HD camera, and dedicated sensors for surgical monitoring are also integrated into the system. A free hole in the middle of the umbilical access port allows for additional tools to be exchanged. Meanwhile, a new version of the gripper, optimized for mass production, is being tested at the ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne( EPFL). Using current technology, four incisions are required to perform most abdominal surgeries. SPRINT reduces the number of incisions to one ?and because the incision is made through the navel, there is no visible post-operative scarring.
The road to commercialization is being led by Ekymed and COWIN. COWIN is a $3.6 million [Euro2.9 million] EC-funded body created to support the commercialization of advanced technologies developed by European research. The first step, says Ekymed’s Troia, is to complete a business plan to attract investors. ?The budget forecast is very attractive due to the large number of cases in which it would be possible to use the robot,? says Troia. The consortium continues to test SPRINT with surgeons in order to fine-tune and promote the system. If venture funding is forthcoming, the money will be used to develop an industrial prototype and further miniaturize some of the robot’s components. Additionally, the team seek investment in order to reduce the number of limited use components, fund further tests, and to meet certification, sterilization and testing requirements, says Troia.