Did you know that Woodley BioReg’s home county of Yorkshire is home to some of the most cutting-edge developments in medical devices, not only in wound care and surgical instrumentation, but also robotic surgery?

Five years ago, The University of Leeds received a donation of a £1m ‘da Vinci’ robot to further research into this exciting field. The robot provides surgeons with greater dexterity than what was previously possible, translating small movements of the human hand into smaller, more precise movements of miniature instruments inside the body. The size of these instruments, as small as they are, still limits where they can reach in the body, the reason being that they have to be controlled from within. The challenge now is to miniaturise further, opening the potential for surgeons to use minimally invasive surgery to reach areas of the body, such as the lung and brain, to perform biopsies or deliver cancer treatments to areas that would otherwise be impossible to treat.

2022 saw researchers at the University of Leeds publish four papers demonstrating the concept to use miniature catheters or ‘magnetic tentacles’, as little as 2 millimetres in diameter, as a way of ‘reaching parts of the body that other instruments cannot reach’. These tentacles are soft, flexible, and contain a series of tiny magnets embedded in their length. These tentacles would be moved and steered from outside of the body, controlled by magnets on robot arms. The first tests saw tentacles produced around 80mm long, made from a soft elastomeric compound that contained magnetic particles, being used with a 3D model of a bronchial tree.

The vision for the future is a guidance system that would be autonomous, and not require the patient to undergo X-rays during such procedures. Data from body scans would be used to identify the target site, calculate the trajectory to be taken, and program the robotic system. Then the system would operate the robotic arms that precisely navigate the tentacles through and along the pre-determined route.

Whilst still years away from clinical evaluation, this is an exciting development that combines complementary advancements in robotics, imaging and software. It suggests what the future holds with respect to the most advanced medical devices for use in diagnostics and treatment.

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