Sensei – the Robot that Operates Hearts

UK surgeons are working with a pioneering new robotic arm that will be able to carry out intricate, life-saving heart operations. The robotic arm – dubbed the Sensei robot – is being tested at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.

There are currently only four such robots in use in the world and 20 patients in the UK have already undergone surgery with this technological wonder. In a procedure known as Catheter Ablation that helps treat fast or irregular heartbeats, the doctors use the robotic arm to guide thin wires through blood vessels in the heart.

The thin wires and tubes are inserted into the body through a vein in the groin. The robot guides these wires and tubes all the way into the heart. An electric current is then delivered to specific areas of the heart muscle through the wires. This current is targeted at destroying certain tiny, specific portions of the heart muscle that are causing the heart to beat irregularly.

The procedure is highly intricate as the wires need to be positioned accurately in locations that might be difficult to reach. The Sensei robot provides surgeons the facility of a joystick on a computer console so they can more easily and accurately control the wires.

According to doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital, the robot will help reduce risk for patients and increase the number of procedures they can carry out. They believe there is scope for advancement in the future in the form of automation. The robot could be further developed to guide the wires to a point in the heart specified by the doctors from images on a computer screen.

The operation is currently largely done by hand and requires highly skilled and dexterous surgeons to be able to perform it. A shortage of clinicians currently allows only 10% of people with atrial fibrillation to get treated in this manner.

Nearly 50,000 people in the UK alone develop atrial fibrillation each year. It is one of the major causes of stroke and heart failure and costs the NHS millions in expenses annually. With an ageing population, the UK is expecting a further increase in the number of cases.

St. Mary’s consultant cardiologist, Dr. Wyn Davies said, “In the UK a shortage of expertise means there are too few centres where highly complex cases can be carried out. The robot allows accuracy and control of catheter movement which cannot currently be achieved without a skill level that usually takes considerable time to acquire.”

“The attraction is the potential for automation – we can get details about the patient’s heart anatomy from CT scans, then on the computer draw where you want the ablation delivered and hit return.” While accepting that a fully automatic procedure was still a few years in the future, he foresaw a time when a skilled operator could supervise multiple operations single-handedly.

Trudie Lobban, chief executive of the Arrhythmia Alliance charity felt the operation and the robotic arm were a success and could help people lead normal lives. “It’s like threading cotton through a very fine needle and with this new device it should be much easier and quicker to carry out and to train doctors to do it.”

Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation said, “Through research we have learned that abnormal heart rhythms, like atrial fibrillation, are caused by a handful of rogue cells.”

“Extreme precision is required to track down and deal with these cells without damaging healthy tissue. The early promising results suggest that this approach may greatly improve the treatment of some patients with atrial fibrillation.”

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