Cutting-edge robot space surgeon makes first incision in Zero-G

One giant leap for astronaut medicine

Updated The world's first remote-operated robot space surgeon has been successfully tested, the team behind the device said this week.

The miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant (spaceMIRA) wasn't operating on an astronaut, but on rubber bands designed to mimic elastic tissues like tendons and blood vessels. A total of 10 rubber bands were strung up inside a microwave-sized experiment locker, which were cut by surgeons remotely connected to the International Space Station from Lincoln, Nebraska, at the headquarters of Virtual Incision, which partnered with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to create spaceMIRA.

SpaceMIRA is similar to its terrestrial counterpart MIRA, and is incredibly small for a remote surgery robot. Instead of a massive piece of equipment occupying an entire room, MIRA and its space-configured sister are only around 30 inches long and two pounds. The key difference between MIRA and spaceMIRA is the latter's ability to be remote operated and carry out pre-programmed tasks.

Along with challenges presented by zero gravity and the confined space of an experiment locker, surgeons 250 miles away from the ISS also had to contend with noticeable lag of between two-thirds and three-quarters of a second between manipulating the controls and getting a response from spaceMIRA.

"You have to wait a little bit for the movement to happen, it's definitely slower movements than you're used to in the operating room," said Lincoln-based surgeon Michael Jobst, who had the first go at the controls. Jobst has been a regular participant in testing with MIRA on Earth, and has even performed colorectal surgery on a human patient using the device.

To compensate for the lag, spaceMIRA engineers scaled the controls to require larger motions from surgeons to perform comparably smaller actions by the robot. CNN broadcast footage of the experiment shared by Virtual Incision.

SpaceMIRA arrived at the ISS in late January after being carried to orbit in a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo craft launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. 

Space medicine advances are necessary for future missions

With limited space available on the ISS – not to mention on future long-term missions to the Moon or Mars – it's difficult to make room for a dedicated medical crew member.

There have been humans on the ISS for more than 20 years, and in that time medical care for astronauts hasn't changed all that much. They're the world's premier telemedicine patients. 

Astronauts are cared for by a dedicated team of doctors, imaging specialists, psychologists, and other medical professionals supplemented by devices on the ISS like ultrasound machines, drugs, and other equipment. The only dedicated medical staff on the ISS is one of the astronauts who has undergone 40 hours of paramedic-level training to meet qualifications as a crew medical officer.

Luckily, astronauts are in peak physical condition when they arrive at the ISS so medical scares have been few and easily treated. As missions become longer, however, technology like spaceMIRA may become a necessity unless extra space is available for a dedicated doctor.

But MIRA and spaceMIRA are both described as "investigational devices" by Virtual Incision, meaning they aren't necessarily ready for deployment to space. Before they get there, the team at Virtual Incision, which was spun up to commercialize the technology developed at UNL, wants MIRA to make critical terrestrial surgeries available to patients in remote locations.

"As thrilling as it is to have our technology in space, we expect the impact of this research will be most notable on Earth," said Virtual Incision president and CEO John Murphy.

Murphy said that MIRA is under review by the FDA, and the company hopes to make the system available for small communities without local surgeons. If approved for wider medical use, MIRA would be able to be deployed in smaller facilities that may not have room for a dedicated robotic surgery suite. Virtual Incision said MIRA doesn't need a dedicated mainframe room like other surgical robots, and is designed to be portable.

"All six surgeons and three engineers were able to maneuver spaceMIRA with ease and we had no cutting errors or problems during this experiment," a Virtual Incision spokesperson told The Register.

"At this time, there are no future tests in space planned, but we continue to innovate MIRA, our miniaturized robotic-assisted surgery technology intended for use on Earth, which is currently under review by the FDA."®

Updated to add on February 19

The team behind spaceMIRA has been in touch to say: "At this time, there are no future tests in space planned, but we continue to innovate MIRA, our miniaturized robotic-assisted surgery technology intended for use on Earth, which is currently under review by the FDA."

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