The robotic catheter used for heart surgery on pigs. 

By George Dvorsky

During a recent experiment at Boston Children’s Hospital, bioengineers used a robotic catheter to reach a leaky valve insidepig hearts. But get this—the device was completely autonomous, navigating through the heart all by itself and without the benefit of a surgeon’s guiding hand. Welcome to the future of heart surgery.

New research published today in Science Robotics describes a robotic catheter that’s capable of moving autonomously inside a living body. In tests, the device navigated through beating, blood-filled pig hearts in search of its target—a leaky prosthetic valve. Once at the scene, a surgeon took over to finish the repair. The senior investigator of this project, bioengineer Pierre Dupont from Boston Children’s Hospital, said this proof-of-concept experiment suggests autonomous surgical robots could be used for complex procedures, freeing up surgeons to focus on the most difficult tasks. 

“The right way to think about this is through the analogy of a fighter pilot and [an autonomous] fighter plane,” said Dupont in a press statement. “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.”

In addition to relieving surgeons of a tiring, onerous task, a minimally invasive procedure such as this reduces chances of trauma and infection, which are associated risks of open heart surgery. Currently, robotic catheters are used during heart surgery, but they’re not autonomous, requiring a surgeon to manually move the device using joysticks. What’s more, a patient typically requires about 30 minutes of exposure to x-rays during the procedure, which is obviously not great.

Illustration of robotic catheter navigation to the site of the leaking prosthetic valve.
Image: Fagogenis et al., Sci. Robot