Physicians Unveil the World's First Colonoscopy Robot

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have developed a system for conducting a standard colonoscopy procedure that uses an internal robot guided by an external magnet.

If the universe was sane, or even moderately discerning, the words “robot” and “colonoscopy” would never appear together in the same sentence.

And yet, here we are.

Researchers have unveiled the world's first robotic system for performing a standard colonoscopy procedure. Developed by a team of physicians and biomedical engineers, the semi-automated system consists of an electronic capsule robot that examines the colon internally while guided by magnets outside the body.

If the concept sounds weird — and it does — keep in mind that the new system is actually designed to make the notorious procedure more comfortable for the patient. Researchers hope that the capsule robot solution will prove to be less invasive than a standard colonoscopy, encouraging more people to undergo the potentially life-saving screening test.

As to the relevant details, the robot capsule is inserted the way you think it's inserted, along with a “tether” that gives clinicians some additional options for biopsies. The lead capsule is 18 millimeters in diameter — about three-quarters of an inch — with the tether tapering down to about six millimeters.

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The capsule-and-tether design is smaller in diameter than a typical endoscope, the tubular optical device used in colonoscopies. But even more importantly, from the patient's point of view, the capsule robot is gently guided by magnetic fields.

"Since the external magnet pulls the capsule robot from head of the capsule — instead of a physician pushing the colonoscope from behind as in traditional endoscopy — we're able to avoid much of the physical pressure that is placed on the patient's colon,” Keith Obstein, study author and associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said in a statement. "We developed this capsule robot to make traversing the (gastrointestinal) tract much easier, for both the clinician and patient."

The new procedure could potentially reduce or eliminate the need for sedation or pain medication, said researcher Piotr Slawinski in an email.

“The primary purpose of this device is to make colonoscopy less intimidating and less uncomfortable, which we hope will make patients more inclined to get screened,” Slawinski said. “By employing magnetic fields to steer the endoscope, our device doesn't apply the high amount of tissue stress that results from pushing a traditional endoscope through the colon.”

The capsule robot is also able to maneuver around without the use of cables on back end, as it were. For instance, the robot can be magnetically positioned to give the endoscopist a reverse view of the colon wall.

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“Without the need for internal actuation cables in an endoscope, as exist in today's traditional endoscopes, our device can be more flexible and compliant,” Slawinski said. “Additionally, the magnetic capsule is embedded with electronics that facilitate the spatial localization of the device in the body.”

And because of the tether, the capsule-robot can perform therapeutic maneuvers, such as biopsies or polyp removal, and bring tissue samples back to where the sun still shines. The procedure doesn't require any special accommodations for the patient, either. You won't have to climb into some medieval-looking exam chamber.

“The patient can simply lie down on a screening table as is done in traditional colonoscopy,” Slawinski said. “Our procedure only requires an external robotic arm that holds a permanent magnet that can be wheeled up to the patient.”

On Monday, Obstein and Slawinski presented data from their study at the international Digestive Disease Week 2017 conference in Chicago.

If you're wondering how the researchers got these results, the team performed the equivalent of 30 colonoscopies … on a pig. That pig, I think we can all agree, is a genuine American hero. The researchers hope to begin human trials by the end of 2018.

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