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Sci-fi scenarios now a reality in medical world

'Maggots,' cancer-crunching claws, 'bionic eyes' likely to become commonly used in near future

by Olivier Thibault and Mariette Le Roux

AFP-JIJI

Exoskeletons helping the paralyzed to walk, tiny maggot-inspired devices gnawing at brain tumors, machines working tirelessly as hospital helpers: In many respects, the future of medicine is already here.

Experts say that at the experimental level, human skills are already being enhanced or replaced by robots and other high-tech substitutes — and these may become commonplace just a few years from now.

Some recent advances:

Tumor-eating “maggots”: Last year, scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore said they had developed a creepy-crawly device inspired by the humble maggot that zaps tumors with electricity and sucks up the debris.

The fingerlike prototype has multiple joints allowing it to move in several directions, according to a press release from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which funded the work.

The idea for the tiny neurosurgical robot was born from the difficulty doctors have to reach many types of deep-seated tumors in the brain.

Researchers were testing the safety of the device in pigs and human cadavers.

Cancer-crunching claws: Inspired by crab pincers, scientists in Singapore created a tiny robot that can access a person’s stomach via the throat to cut up tumors using miniature claws.

One robotic arm holds the tumor while the other slices away, according to the Nanyang Technological University, which took part in the research.

The procedure, which can take as little as 20 minutes, may one day eliminate the need for surgery, which can take hours.

The Master and Slave Transluminal Endoscopic Robot (MASTER) has been tested successfully in patients, according to the NTU.

Exoskeletons: Engineers around the world are racing to design the lightest, most autonomous robotic exoskeleton, not only to restore movement to disabled people but also to boost the strength and endurance of those who carry heavy cargo or walk very far, like soldiers or rescue workers.

Strapped to the lower body, such devices are powered by motors that take some of the strain off the muscles — similar to the brain-controlled suit that helped a paraplegic kick a soccer ball at the World Cup opening ceremony.

Several prototypes have been developed, but many battle to meet the key challenge of compact, long-lasting, carry-on power supply.

“Bionic eye”: Among the recent advances in treating degenerative retinal diseases is the “bionic eye,” which has restored rudimentary vision to dozens of people in Europe and the United States.

The system works with a chip implanted in the eye to mimic the function of photoreceptor cells, typically combined with a miniature camera mounted in a pair of sporty-looking sunglasses.

The camera sends images via a minicomputer to the chip, which converts them to electrical signals to the brain, where they are interpreted as vision.

In one patent, the chip itself functions also as photoreceptor and transmitter.

A drawback for the tens of millions of people suffering from diseases like retinitis pigmentosa is the cost — these vision aids cost about €100,000 ($140,000) each.

Healers, gophers and caregivers: To bypass human tremors and the need for large cuts for surgeons to get their hands on a deep organ, much smaller surgeon-guided robot prongs and pincers are increasingly being used for minimally invasive procedures.

They also allow for degrees of rotation and motion beyond what the human hand is capable of, and make remote surgery possible by allowing doctors to control a scalpel in robotic hands on another continent.

Saving the health sector a pretty penny in labor costs, robots are also starting to take over duties as hospital as cart pushers. And at home, they can help the disabled communicate and be more independent — one type of robotic arm has a spoon at the end, allowing for self-feeding.

This is part of an AFP-JIJI series on advances in robotics.