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Tiny Robots Mend Broken Hearts

• http://www.technologyreview.com, By Susan Young

For cardiac patients, repair of defects often requires open-heart surgery and temporary paralysis of the organ. But a set of robotic tools developed by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital could eventually enable surgeons to operate on the heart through small incisions while the heart continues to beat.

The use of small incisions and the insertion of robotic tools are increasingly common in many types of surgery. Such so-called minimally invasive surgery offers quicker recovery times than conventional surgery and reduced risk of infection, because the cuts in the body are much smaller. In the case of minimally invasive cardiac surgery, robotic tools have had to be delivered by catheters—smooth, flexible tubes that can carry, for example, an artery-opening stent. But because they are flexible, catheters can deliver only small amounts of force and can be difficult to position precisely.

The team at Boston Children's Hospital instead uses curved-metal-tube robots to create a stiffer tool delivery platform inside the heart. "With standard open-heart procedures, we can pull tissue from one area to another. We can't do that with a catheter. These robotic devices can exert some force, so they are able to do much of what a surgeon does, except they are navigating through the blood vessels," says Pedro del Nido, a pediatric cardiac surgeon involved in the project. 

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