A single hole, five micro-robotic arms - that's what a new surgical system developed by University of Hong Kong medics and Polytechnic University engineers is promising will make minimally invasive operations more non-invasive.
Project initiator HKU surgeon Yeung Chung-kwong called the Novel Surgical Robotic System "almost like a transformer robot."
NSRS is capable of requiring just a single incision to the body or even no hole for obstetrical or abdominal surgeries, Yeung said.
The existing Da Vinci technology in robotic surgery - local public hospitals are equipped with eight HK$40 million machines - has been the only system available to surgeons worldwide for 15 years.
The drawbacks of Da Vinci include requiring multiple incisions, Yeung said. By contrast, NSRS involves passing a 2-3cm-diameter tube through the patient's anus or vagina, and then one by one putting five to six robotic arms - one a 3D camera - through the tube inside the body to perform surgical operations. Yeung described the tube and 360-degree flexible clips from the robotic arms as like "a surgeon's entire arm to fingers."
Surgery can then be conducted with greater precision with at most one incision, while allowing 3D vision.
"The technology can be applied to any abdominal or pelvic surgeries. It could also theoretically apply to any other parts of the body too, with a single incision, but we have not gone that far yet," he said.
"We have not commercialized the technology yet so we do not have a price for it, but it will be less than the old machine."
It could also potentially be carried by hand as the equipment is many times smaller than the Da Vinci machine.
Yeung said the most improved part of the technology from the old is the surgeon can feel the force used even when the robotic arms go into the patient's body so it will not cause injuries to nearby organs.
"For current minimal invasive surgeries, patients need at least a week to recover from the pain but using this new technology would reduce pain and analgesic requirement, speed up recovery rate and cause less injuries to the body," Yeung said.
The team used NSRS in three gall bladder removals in pigs, with experiments on human corpses to be made this mid-year.
Poly U engineer Yung Kai-leung, who was involved in developing the system, said he used his experience in inventing space technology. "The materials we used are of reduced size, lightweight and high precision, just like the materials used for spacecraft," Yung said.
The project has been supported by a HK$10 million investment by the Innovation and Technology Commission while Yeung and other investors put in another HK$15 million.
The first clinical case will be conducted in 2018, and he hopes to make it popular in Hong Kong and the mainland by 2020