Dear medical futurists,
Back in 2017, I wrote about the future of surgery and included a U.S.-based company that developed a robot that can be placed inside a patient’s abdomen and then controlled remotely by a surgeon. This enables surgeries with minimally invasive tools and techniques that are familiar to surgeons, and does not require a dedicated operating room or specialized infrastructure. The device can become a cost-effective and accessible option for laparoscopic surgery reducing the number of incisions by 50%.
The idea, that seemed so far-fetched when I first wrote about it, recently received an FDA approval to start clinical trials in select hospitals. I asked John Murphy, the CEO of the company about the future of robots in surgery and if robots will replace doctors in the future.
What is virtual incision? How does it work in a clinical setting?
Virtual Incision is pioneering the use of mini-robots for general surgery abdominal procedures. Our approach is to bring the benefits of minimally invasive surgery (MIS) to patients everywhere, including academic centres, community hospitals, rural settings and eventually ASCs (Ambulatory Surgery Centers). The MIRA platform is designed to be simple, small, smart and cost-effective to enable the benefits of MIS in any setting. It’s easy to move, set up, and use.
It is widely accepted that minimally invasive surgery is best for patients, resulting in a shorter length of stay, faster recovery and reduced use of narcotics following surgery. MIRA is a first-of-its-kind portable platform that is designed to increase access to minimally invasive surgery for patients, maximize hospital efficiency, and enable physicians to quickly perform less invasive abdominal procedures while reducing patients’ recovery time and the overall cost to the healthcare system.
The MIRA platform is very different from mainframe robots. Current mainframe platforms are not portable and can be difficult for hospitals to integrate – requiring a dedicated team specifically trained for robot-assisted surgery and renovations to accommodate the surgical platforms, which weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds, take up vast amounts of space, and cost millions of dollars. Additionally, the MIRA is designed to enable surgeons to perform the entire procedure through fewer abdominal incisions. This offers an advantage over other surgical robots, which deploy multiple arms to reach into the patient’s abdomen through four or five incisions.
At the time when I first wrote about Virtual Incision you were just embarking on a cooperation with NASA. Today you are about to begin with clinical trials. What is the platform’s current status?
Virtual Incision’s MIRA platform has just been approved by the FDA for an IDE Clinical Study in the U.S. for colon surgery. We will start the clinical cases in Lincoln, Nebraska, near our company headquarters, in early 2021 and plan to expand to a couple of other states after that. Colorectal and lower gastrointestinal procedures are among the fastest-growing surgeries in the U.S., with more than 400,000 colon resection procedures performed each year. Minimally invasive colectomies have been shown to reduce mortality, and can also reduce a patient’s healing time, pain, complications, and hospital readmissions.
What kind of operations can MIRA help conduct?
Virtual Incision is planning a family of specialized MIRA devices, with our initial indication being for colon resection procedures, followed by even smaller devices for operations like hernia repair and gall bladder removal.
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The most common approach for treating patients with severe colorectal and lower gastrointestinal conditions is colon resection – removal of all or part of the bowel – often requiring open surgery. Until now, these procedures required four to six incisions, one of which is a large extraction site. MIRA simplifies this, reducing the number of incisions by 50% or more, with the goal of improving patient outcomes.
What do you think is the ultimate goal of robotic surgery – to replace or to assist doctors?
Our goal is to leverage Virtual Incision’s state-of-the-art robotics technology to expand access to MIS for patients everywhere with an accessible platform to assist laparoscopic surgeons. Virtual Incision is focused largely on the underserved 80%+ of the market where a smaller and simpler solution is needed. an accessible, cost-effective, flexible option for all, promising to bring the benefits of MIS to millions of more patients.
You see? It's never about robots or automation replacing physicians. It's about supporting and augmenting them.