The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Surgical robotic snakes sound like another nightmarish tech advancement but they are quite safe.

Despite its prevalence, most of us would be hard pressed to give a succinct definition of what cancer actually is. To offer some clarity, the most useful definition is provided by the National Cancer Institute.

Cancer is “a disease in which some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. Cancer can start almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and multiply (through a process called cell division) to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes this orderly process breaks down, and abnormal or damaged cells grow and multiply when they shouldn’t. These cells may form tumors, which are lumps of tissue. Tumors can be cancerous or not cancerous (benign).”

Globally, cancer is one of the leading causes of death whose treatment can involve surgery. Despite the risks, about 60% of cancer patients end up undergoing some type of surgery.

Technology has paved the way for an evolution of surgical techniques that could be more efficient, effective, and safer than traditional surgical methods. For instance, robotic snakes are one of these new approaches.

After a thorough study, the University of Nottingham revealed that a robotic snake is a highly versatile device that has shown great potential in cancer surgery. It was primarily invented to aid the progress of managing cancer and mitigating factors surrounding it.

Robotic snakes are highly flexible, agile, and adaptable devices that can move in multiple dimensions and perform different tasks in challenging environments. According to Research Gate, the world’s first robotic snake was developed in 1972, by Professor Shigeo Hirose at Carnegie Mellon University.

Robotic snakes, sometimes known as serpentine robots, are robots that replicate snake movements. They are made up of various segments or modules that include a blend of soft materials and stiff components. These can be controlled by cables, hydraulics, or pneumatics.

Furthermore, some robotic snakes are outfitted with sensors, cameras, or other imaging devices, allowing them to capture data in real-time and relay it to the surgeon.

Robotic snakes have several features that make them well-suited for use in cancer surgery. They can be designed to access narrow and hard-to-reach areas inside the body while minimizing trauma to surrounding tissues. Robotic snakes can navigate through tortuous and complex anatomical structures, which can be challenging for traditional surgical instruments.

Additionally, the use of robotic snakes can also reduce the need for more invasive surgery, which often entails a longer recovery time, more significant pain, and scarring.

Robotic snakes equipped with sensors and imaging devices can be guided to the site of a tumor, where they can accurately detect and locate the malignancy. The surgeon can then use the robotic snake to obtain a tissue sample for biopsy, which can help in the diagnosis and staging of cancer.

Robotic snakes can be used to deliver cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, directly to the tumor. This technique, known as targeted therapy, can minimize the side effects of treatment and improve its effectiveness.

Robotic snakes can perform minimally invasive surgery to remove cancerous tissues or organs. The surgeon can control the robotic snake from a console outside the operating room, which enables them to operate with greater precision and dexterity than traditional surgery.

Although robotic snakes come with potential benefits, several challenges must be addressed before they can be widely adopted in cancer surgery. Some of these challenges include cost, training, and safety.

Robotic snakes can be expensive to develop, purchase, and maintain, which could limit their accessibility, especially in low-resource settings. Surgeons require specialized training to operate robotic snakes, and the learning curve can be steep. Robotic snakes must be designed and tested to ensure their safety for clinical use. The risks associated with the usage of robotic snakes in cancer surgery, such as the device malfunctioning or injury to surrounding tissue, must be minimized.

Robotic snakes have various advantages over standard surgical approaches, such as less stress to surrounding tissues, more precision, fewer problems, and better outcomes. Despite several challenges, the potential benefits of using robotic snakes in cancer surgery are significant and warrant additional research and development.

With technological improvements, we may expect to see an increase in the usage of robots in surgical procedures. Robotic snakes are a step forward in disease control; many more will follow.

Quadri Adejumo, an accomplished journalist, has devoted his professional life to the exploration of diverse subjects, emphasizing community-centered narratives. His impressive body of work features collaborations with esteemed institutions like Reuters, AFP News, the World Health Organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, and the Thomson Foundation.