Surgeons will soon feel the future getting to them, via robots.
Today, babies suffering from malformed esophagi can take up to months and have to be paralyzed just to be healed. The disease, known as long-gap esophageal atresia, a birth defect where babies have a gap in their esophagus for more than three centimeters, needs to be treated through the Foker process. This process involves suturing each end of the esophagus and pulling them until the muscular tube can heal on its own.
And this process is really effective, with a 95 to 100 percent success rate. The hiccup is that the patient has to be in the hospital for over three months, has to be paralyzed for around too weeks and costs over a million dollars.
But a new study published in the journal Science Robotics shows a possible alternative. In the study, researchers used a robotic implant that can induce esophagus growth in pigs, stretching the esophagus until it can grow back together. The researchers hope that this procedure will be replacing the Foker process soon. Not only is it cheaper, it the procedure can also be custom-made to other patients, will be more precise and won’t need for paralyzing and sedating the babies.
“You will eliminate all the risks of long-term anesthesia. For kids, anesthesia isn’t great anyway,” says Pierre Dupont, Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Bioengineering in Boston Children’s Hospital and author of the study. “You just don’t know what it’s doing to their neurocognitive development when you have them out for so long.”
The process that the robotic implant uses is mechanostimulation, in which pulling a tissue causes it to grow. Although Dupont said that mechanostimulation isn’t yet fully understood, there have been medical applications to it, such as breasts reconstructions. The implant not only successfully stretches out the esophagus and was functional, but also forces the tissue to grow. This means that the esophagus remains the same thickness stretched as it is rested.
In the near future, Dupont wants to make the robotic implant multi-use, such as treating other tubular conditions like short bowel syndrome. The future where robotics can help humans medically is going to be sooner than expected.
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