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Israeli university shows off robot snake used in surgeries

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Prof. Alon Wolf has gained international recognition for his conception of a surgical robot. (Technion Spokesperson's Office photo)

A snake-like robot developed at the Technion institute of technology in Israel that permits certain surgeries without making incisions in patients is now being used in hospitals in Canada.

Its chief inventor, medical mechanical engineer Alon Wolf, was the guest speaker at the annual general meeting of Technion Canada (TC), which was held in Montreal on Nov. 10.

His team observed live snakes in their lab, to help them design the highly flexible robot that mimics the movements of the reptiles.

The trajectory of the robot, which enters the body through a natural orifice, is controlled remotely by the surgeon who guides the “snakehead” to the area requiring treatment. The head has sensors and a camera that provides a 3D image, and the instruments needed for the operation are inserted through the snake. Procedures that can be done this way include the removal of a tumour or cardiac cauterization. Internal suturing can also be performed.

The robot can be made as thin as four millimetres in diameter and Wolf thinks that within a couple of years, it will be possible to make it skinny enough for use intravascularly.

The device is single use. It’s never sterilized, he said, because it is relatively inexpensive to make. The “brain,” or control system, is the costly part.

Avoiding invasive surgery means patients suffer less trauma and risk of infection, Wolf said, and rates of hospitalization are significantly reduced.

The snake robot technology has been sold to the company Medrobotics, which is based in Massachusetts. In 2015, it became the first device of its kind to be cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Wolf. It is now being employed in hospitals in Toronto and Montreal.

Wolf, who is Technion’s vice-president for external relations and resource development, stressed that the university and its alumni are at the forefront of technological innovation in Israel and internationally.

Located in Haifa, Technion has almost 15,000 students in the sciences, technology, medicine and architecture. Four Nobel Prize laureates are among its graduates.

Two years ago, it opened campuses in New York, in association with Cornell University, and China, with Shantou University. “Israeli companies are number 3 on Nasdaq after the United States and China, and two-thirds of those companies are led by Technion graduates,” Wolf said. “Our graduates are responsible for 90 per cent of the successful startups in Israel.”

Wolf was behind another invention that made it to market in spectacular fashion. It’s a system for accurately inserting the tiny screws used in spinal surgeries. About 10 per cent of those screws can be misplaced, and typically at least six screws are used, he said. Even being as little as one millimetre off can damage the spinal cord.

He created a pre-surgery system in which a robot is actually attached to the patient, a CT scan is taken and the surgeon performs virtual surgery on the image. That plan is then transferred during the real operation to guide the screws’ placement, he said.

“Over 100,000 screws have been placed worldwide (using the system) with no mistakes,” Alon said. Last year, the spinoff company that developed the technology was sold for US$1.6 billion ($2.12 billion).

His lab is conscious of its responsibility to improve quality of life, even when the commercial reward is minimal. One example is an inexpensive 3D-printed robotic hand for children who have lost theirs, or were born without one.

The motor can be ordered through Alibaba for about $100, he said, and the instructions for printing the hand are available online. The hands are now being made all over the world, notably in more disadvantaged regions.

“The first hand made in Israel was for a Syrian refugee injured by a landmine. And it was done for free,” Wolf said.

The AGM also heard from Scott Leemaster of Detroit, the new chair of the Technion board of governors. While president of the American Technion Society from 2012 until earlier this year, he presided over the organization’s successful US$500-million fundraising campaign.

Technion is now in the midst of a 10-year global campaign to raise US$1.8 billion.

Leemaster said TC and other smaller fundraising arms should not feel that they can’t compete with the remarkable fundraising in the United States.

“It’s not us and them,” he said. “What Canada does is important. The largest number of our board members are from Israel, the second the U.S, and the third Canada, and Canada supplies three times the number as the next largest country.”

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