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A Glimpse Into The Future Of Robot-Assisted Surgery At The Aspen Ideas Festival

Lauren Silverman

A robot named da Vinci was born a decade and a half ago. And since then, doctors have used the system to perform more than a million surgeries worldwide. It has revolutionized the way surgeons remove tumors. The next big leap? Da Vinci’s cousins nipping out those tumors before they become a problem.

The da Vinci robot looks like a giant metal spider.

“It reaches over the top of the patient and has multiple arms that come in and hold the instruments,” explains Dr. Catherine Mohr at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. She’s the Director of Medical Research for Intuitive Surgical, the company that makes da Vinci.

A doctor controls those big, spider-like arms at a console a few feet away.

Now, the revolutionary part of this robotic system is that it gives surgeons an extraordinary amount of precision to operate while making just a few incisions the size of a dime on a patient. Although they’re not cheap for hospitals, they can cost as much as two million dollars. There’s no doubt they make a difference. Tiny movements that were once impossible become routine. And studies show with this type of minimally invasive robotic surgery patients can recover faster.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Dr. Catherine Mohr develops surgical robots and robotic surgical procedures.

Still, Mohr insists robotic surgery is just a small part of the future of health care.

“When we want to think about health care, one of the most important things we ought to focus on is wellness and prevention,” Mohr says. “In the interventional world, which is where I live with the surgical robot, we are really there when prevention has failed.”

For example, when a tumor has already grown, or when arteries are irreversibly clogged.

The truly disruptive technologies, Mohr says, will be tools that use biomarkers to make earlier diagnoses — long before any surgery is necessary.

“These cancers are going to continue to arise,” she says, “we are just going to catch them earlier and we are going to make them be not the life-ending event.”

A Spotlight On Preventative Technologies

In the next few decades, Mohr says imaging technology could identify trouble spots before they’re tumors. Fluorescent tagging and 3D navigation, could allow surgeons to be more precise in cutting out disease and leaving healthy tissue intact. Even stem cell advances could change the role of robotic systems like the da Vinci.

“As we start to live longer, we sag, we tear, we wear out,” Mohr says. “We are going to want replacements for our knee joints because they are causing us pain, our kidneys are going to start to give out. Well now I’m looking at all these folks in regenerative medicine who are saying I can take your stem cells and grow you a new organ, and my role in that is saying I can install that new organ with tiny little incisions and you go home with Band-Aids in your belly and you’ve had your kidney function restored.”

So robots, don’t worry, you’re not going to lose your job. You just might need to get comfortable being a team player.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.