The Robot That Can Treat Birth Defects

Robots have been increasingly deployed in novel ways in recent years, especially in healthcare, but possibly the most novel application comes via researchers from the University of Sheffield, Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Children Hospital, who have developed a device that they believe can help babies with a rare birth defect.

The work, which was documented in a recently published paper, aims to tackle oesophageal atresia, which is a rare birth defect that affects the baby’s oesophagus.  The robotic implant aims to encourage tissue growth in babies.

The device is attached to the oesophagus and a motor built into then stimulates the cells via a gentle tug of the tissue.  It comes with two inbuilt sensors to both measure the tension of the tissue and the tissue displacement, with the tissue traction modified according to the data fed back.

The system is inspired by the Foker technique, which manually pulls the tissue using sutures.  It’s difficult to know exactly how much force to apply however, and the process is far from foolproof.

“The robot we developed addresses this issue because it measures the force being applied and can be adapted at anytime throughout the treatment. With it being implanted in the patient, it means they have – in effect – a doctor by their side all the time, monitoring them and changing their treatment when needed,” the team explain.

What is Oesophageal atresia?

Oesophageal atresia is pretty rare, and is believed to affect about one in every 4,000 babies born in Europe and the US.  It’s a genetic disease that results in the upper and lower parts of the oesophagus not connecting, thus meaning that food can’t find its way to the stomach.  Treatment of the condition can begin as soon as three months into the babies life and can go on for months.  Each time, the patient is sedated to ensure the sutures don’t tear.

Not only is the robotic treatment more likely to be effective, it would also mean that the baby is free to move around and carry on a normal life with their parents whilst treatment is under way, which would hopefully make it a less stressful experience for both parties.

“The biggest challenge we faced was to design a robot that works in a technology-hostile environment, and to develop a robust physiologically-relevant interaction with the tissue that promotes its growth when there are so many unknowns about the underlying mechanisms. The robot we designed had to be soft and durable, air and water impermeable, abrasion resistant, non-corrosive and be able to be implanted for long term treatment,” the team explain.

The team believe that their work is an important step in understanding how mechanical stimulation at the tissue level can help cells to multiply and stimulate growth.

“The development of this robotic implant is a breakthrough in applying the knowledge that tissues respond to strain with the production of new tissue in a practical and clinically useful manner,” they conclude.

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