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Five to Watch

Current Vanderbilt Projects That are Changing Lives

August 2013

1. Capsule Robots

Jellyfish capsule robots that propel themselves with tiny fins; centipede capsules with 12 legs; capsules with tiny propellers; capsules that use a cell phone vibrator for locomotion. These are just some of the designs that

Pietro Valdastri, Ph.D., has experimented with so far in his career. 

Currently he is working closely with assistant professor of Medicine Keith Obstein, M.D., MPH, on the design that he thinks has the best chance for replacing the infamous colonoscopy: the magnetic air capsule (MAC), which he developed when he was at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy before moving to Vanderbilt.

The MAC is equipped with all the capabilities of a traditional colonoscope—camera, LED lights, a channel for inserting tools needed to remove polyps, etc.—and is the size of the smallest colonoscope. Instead of being pushed through the colon, the capsule is pulled by a powerful magnet outside the body controlled by a robot arm. In addition to the thin wires that connect the camera and lights, the capsule is hooked up to a small air tube. This provides it with an air cushion that allows it to glide smoothly. It also can be used to inflate the colon in case the capsule gets stuck or to uncover portions of the lining hidden from view. A special sensor on the capsule detects the strength and direction of the magnetic field which allows the operator to accurately track its location and orientation.

Each year colon cancer claims more than 600,000 lives worldwide, despite the fact that it can be treated with a 90 percent success rate when it is caught early enough. “We hope to increase the number of people who undergo routine screenings for colon cancer by decreasing the pain associated with the procedure. We also hope to improve its effectiveness,” said Valdastri, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering.

2. Steerable Needles

Last fall, Robert Webster, Ph.D., attended a conference in Italy where one of the speakers ran through his wish list of useful surgical devices. When the speaker described the system he would like to have to remove brain clots, Webster, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering and Otolaryngology, couldn’t help breaking out in a big smile. He had been developing just such a system for the previous four years.

Webster’s design, which he calls active cannula, consists of a series of thin, nested tubes. Each tube has a different intrinsic curvature. By precisely rotating and extending these tubes, an operator can steer the tip in different directions, allowing it to follow a curving path through the body. The single needle system required for removing brain clots is much simpler than the multi-needle system he had been developing for transnasal surgery. When he told his collaborator, Kyle Weaver, M.D., about the new application, he was quite supportive.

“I think this can save a lot of lives. There are a tremendous number of intracerebral hemorrhages and the number is certain to increase as the population ages,” said Weaver, assistant professor of Neurological Surgery.

3. Bionic Prosthesis

Craig Hutto, 25, made the headlines in 2005 when he lost his leg in a dramatic shark attack on a Florida beach. Six years later, he was in the news again this time as a participant in the development of the first lower leg prosthesis with a powered knee and ankle joint.

Michael Goldfarb, Ph.D., and Craig Hutto. Photo by John Russell.

Michael Goldfarb, Ph.D., and Craig Hutto. Photo by John Russell.

“My normal leg is always a step behind me, but the Vanderbilt leg is only a split-second behind,” Hutto said. In other words, the powered leg allows him to walk with a natural gait.

The advanced prosthesis was designed by Michael Goldfarb’s lab. It is a prime example of his argument that recent technological advances have created an opportunity to design artificial limbs that are substantially smarter, more capable, more active and more interactive than those currently on the market.

In addition to the lower limb prosthesis, his research team has produced an artificial hand that can shift quickly between different grips and a powered exoskeleton that not only allows people with paraplegia to stand and walk but is also compact enough to wear in a wheelchair. All three designs have been licensed by companies interested in producing and selling commercial versions.

4. Robotic Bladder Surgery

The basic method that doctors use to treat bladder cancer hasn’t changed much in the last 70 years, but Nabil Simaan, Ph.D., associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and Otolaryngology, working with Vanderbilt urologic surgeon Duke Herrell, M.D., and colleagues at Columbia University, intends to change the situation dramatically. His team has

designed a miniaturized telerobotic platform specifically for this purpose.
The traditional method involves inserting a rigid tube called resectoscope through the urethra and into the bladder. The instrument provides access for an endoscope for observation and interchangeable cauterizing tools used to obtain biopsy tissue and to resect small tumors in the bladder lining.

However, the resectoscope’s rigidity makes it difficult to reach all areas of the bladder. This difficulty is generally considered one of the reasons why bladder cancer is so persistent and requires continuing surveillance and repeated surgeries.

The new telerobotic system is designed specifically to overcome this limitation. Its business end is only 5.5 millimeters in diameter so it will fit through a standard resectoscope and consists of a segmented robot arm that can curve through 180 degrees like a snake, allowing it to point in every direction. At the tip of the arm is a white light source, a fiberscope for observation, a tiny forceps for gripping and an optical fiber laser for cauterization.

The bladder cancer system is a specialized version of a single port robotic surgery platform that Simaan developed while he was at Columbia before coming to Vanderbilt. It consists of two segmented robotic arms, pop-up camera and lights that can be inserted through a single, 15 millimeter incision. The Canadian company Titan Medical Inc. has licensed the design and is developing a commercial version for market release.

5. Autism Robot

Aiden has a new friend: a 2-foot high robot called NAO.  Aiden is 3 and a half years old and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He met NAO (pronounced “now”) when he participated in a test that showed robots can be nearly as effective as human therapists in training young children like Aiden to develop the basic social skills that they need but have difficulty mastering.

The initial impetus for the project came when Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D., learned that his cousin’s son had been diagnosed with ASD. He teamed up with Zachary Warren, Ph.D., and Julie Crittendon, Ph.D., at the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center to find out if the children’s intrinsic interest in robots could be used to train them. So they designed an interactive system around a commercial robot and tested its effectiveness with a dozen 2- to 5-year-old children, half diagnosed with ASD, and found that they responded to the robot almost as well as they did to a human therapist.

“A therapist does many things that robots can’t do,” said Sarkar, professor of Mechanical Engineering. “But a robot-centered system could provide much of the repeated practice that is essential to learning.” In this fashion, robots could play a crucial role in responding to the “public health emergency” created by the rapid growth in the number of children being diagnosed with ASD, which has jumped by 78 percent in just four years.




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Autism Robot Helps Children

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