Boffins bring home the bacon as AI-powered robo-medic performs heart surgery on pigs

'The best way to do this is a partnership between the robot and a surgeon'

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AI-trained autonomous robots have helped surgeons perform heart surgery on live pigs, according to research published in Science Robotics.

A team of researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital in USA, Université de Strasbourg in France, and Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan, have built a robot to perform heart surgery on poorly pigs using machine learning software. They introduced weaknesses into the five porky patients' hearts, then let the robot find and fix them up.

First, a small incision is made on a pig’s chest, and a catheter is inserted in the tip of the animal’s heart. The thin tube has to navigate through the intricate walls of the muscle to reach the aortic annulus, a small squishy ring that acts as an opening to the aortic valve, where blood flows from the heart to the rest of the body.

The goal is to patch a gap between the pig’s heart tissue and a valve replacement that causes blood to leak. As the catheter reaches the space, a plug is inserted to stop the flow of blood.

The robotic catheter managed to navigate to the right position 79 times out of the 83 trials carried on five pigs, giving it a success rate of about 95 per cent, according to the results. It’s a tricky procedure considering the heart is still beating.

Humans stay in the loop

Don’t worry, humans aren’t completely out of the loop. “The best way to do this is a partnership between the robot and a surgeon,” Pierre Dupont, a professor of surgery who works at the Pediatric Cardiac Bioengineering Laboratory at Boston Children's Hospital, explained to The Register.

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The robotic catheter carries a haptic vision sensor made out of a camera and an LED light encased in a soft silicone cap. The device knows how to move around the heart to locate the leak since the camera inputs are fed to a series of machine learning algorithms. These “wall-following algorithms,” rely on a sense of touch to direct the catheter around the pig’s heart.

The camera and a pressure sensor identifies what the catheter tip is pressing against, and how hard it is pushing so the robot catheter knows whether it has hit a wall or tissue and needs to change direction. When it reaches the leak, a human surgeon then dispatches a plug to repair the puncture.

“The dangerous part is placing the plug into the leaking channel. If you don’t replace it properly, it can shoot into the bloodstream and cause things like heart attacks,” Dupont said. He compared the autonomous robot and surgeon to a self-driving plane and a pilot. "The fighter plane takes on the routine tasks like flying the plane, so the pilot can focus on the higher-level tasks of the mission."

“Everything is moving around. You need to land on that rim measuring about 4-5mm wide, and the target is moving. You’ve got to land on that, not getting stuck in the wall and not get stuck in the heart’s valve,” Dupont explained.

It's us on the slab next

Dupont said he’s interested in eventually performing robotic-assisted surgery on real human hearts. He called the current experiments more of a prototype design, and is looking at other types of surgeries that could benefit from autonomous algorithms.

“I’m trying to figure out the biggest impact for this type of application. It could be used to help cardiac electrophysiologists, who use catheters to map the electrical potential in the heart to find out where an arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat, is originating to work out how to stop it. That could be the most compelling first application,” he told El Reg.

No pigs were harmed during the operations. But after the work was completed, they were all "sent on to pig heaven," we're told. ®

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