Robots have long been touted as the next step in medical care. In particular, robot surgery is being tested for more and more procedures. Robots can’t (yet) make decisions, but they are smaller and more precise than human hands, as well as easier to sterilize, and they can be manufactured in the optimal shape for the procedure. All that means that robot surgery is less invasive, because a large incision is not needed to give access; this in turn means less blood loss or risk of infection, meaning the surgery doesn’t have to be rushed, and it also means a faster recovery time.
Now researchers have announced the development of a new technique called intracorporeal cooling and extraction which entails the use of robots to perform a type of kidney surgery in cancer patients. The procedure is known as a partial nephrectomy, or removal of the part of the kidney affected by the cancer. Unlike traditional surgery, the robot surgery doesn’t cause significant damage to healthy tissue. In tests, it was found that while the robots need to remove a smaller portion of the kidney than human surgeons do, they actually remove more of the tumor.
In fact, for many patients, robots make it possible to only excise part of the kidney when conventional techniques would require removal of the whole thing.
“Unfortunately, the majority of people today diagnosed with kidney cancer get their entire kidney removed,” said Dr. Craig Rogers, a developer of the technique, in a statement. “Not only that, they’re getting it removed through an open approach, though a large incision that often requires removal a rib, when there are minimally invasive approaches, such as robotic surgery, available.”
When the surgeon is able to perform the partial removal procedure, it needs to be done quickly. Since blood flow to the kidney has to be stopped for the surgery, permanent damage is a risk; if the surgeon takes more than half an hour—for example, if there’s some question about whether the entire tumor has been removed, or if it’s difficult to even find—damage is nearly certain. That means a human surgeon has to focus on speed, often at the expense of thoroughness. The robotic procedure uses ice to prevent permanent damage. This can only be done with conventional techniques when a large incision is made, which means a long and sometimes difficult recovery process.