How Medical Technologies are Re-Booting Health

Revolutions in treatment mean that your health could soon be in the hands of robots and other advanced technologies

Technology has become such a large part of our everyday lives that it’s not surprising it is leading to revolutions in medical practice. Particularly on the cellular level, where it can be used against cancer and genetic conditions, technology is being used to make amazing strides in research, treatment and surgery. Technology suggests new approaches to removing cancerous cells, repairing brain damage and substituting for chemotherapy which could revolutionise many forms of treatment.

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The intelligent knife, or ‘iKnife’, may be a game changer for cancer surgery. Described as the knife that can ‘smell’ tumours, it has previously been used to treat brain and breast cancers, and has recently been assessed by researchers at Imperial College in tests for its safety and accuracy in detecting womb cancer.

The iKnife uses electrosurgery, which applies an electrical current to rapidly heat tissue, cutting through it while minimising blood loss. In doing so, it vaporises the tissue, creating smoke that is normally sucked away by extraction systems. Researchers realised that this smoke, if analysed by a mass spectrometer, could identify the types of tissue being cut.

The inventor of the iKnife, Dr Zoltan Takats of Imperial College London, realised that this smoke would be a rich source of biological information. To create the iKnife, he connected an electrosurgical knife to a mass spectrometer. In tests the iKnife correctly identified 91 samples from cancer patients.

If it is found to be successful in the detection of womb cancer, then this could be a game-changer, because this type of cancer is often so hard to detect, and the iKnife can safely seek out and remove the cancerous cells.

“These results provide compelling evidence that the iKnife can be applied in a wide range of cancer surgery procedures,” Dr Takats said. “It provides a result almost instantly, allowing surgeons to carry out procedures with a level of accuracy that hasn’t been possible before. We believe it has the potential to reduce tumour recurrence rates and enable more patients to survive.”

The iKnife has the potential to track down and remove more cancer cells than conventional surgery, improving outcomes and reducing the need for further surgery. It could be in wider operation in a couple of years.

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Magnetic robot

Blood clots in stroke patients, which can cause brain damage and aneurysms, could be sought out and destroyed by a magnetically-steered robot worm.

Capable of gliding through narrow pathways and blood vessels without getting stuck, the robot worm (shown below right) could replace the current form of treatment, which involves a thin wire being inserted into a vessel in the leg or groin, then being directed into the brain by hand.

The potential damage caused by this technique would be avoided by the worm robot, which is able to move throughout the body without friction and can be controlled remotely by using magnetic fields. Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology say the robot, made of nickel-titanium alloy and coated in hydrogel, could prevent brain damage in stroke victims. They are moving towards tests on live subjects.

Proton beam

Proton beam therapy, a form of external radiotherapy, could potentially replace X-ray therapy for cancer in a few years. Proton beams deliver as much energy but with less side radiation than X-rays, making it particularly suitable for treating child patients while reducing the chance of later side-effects.

Researchers at Rutherford Health, who are developing the treatment, believe that around 10 percent of patients that are being treated with radical radiotherapy would see more benefits from proton beam therapy.

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Robot surgeons

Though we’re probably decades away from seeing full-blown robot surgeons, surgical assistance from robot arms is already a reality in systems like Mako, in use at the private Princess Grace Hospital in joint replacement procedures.

The accuracy of placement enabled by the Mako Robotic Arm (shown left) can help world class surgeons perform complex hip and knee surgeries where patients feel less pain, have quicker recovery, gain better motion and function, and over time have fewer revisions than standard hip and knee replacement surgeries.

Patients undergo a Computer Tomography (CT) scan of their joint, which produces a 3D virtual model of their unique anatomy. Uploaded into the Mako system, the scan guides the robotic arm within a pre-defined area, enabling the surgeon to remove only the diseased bone whilst preserving healthy bone areas and tissue.

This feature was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones, which you can read here 

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