Babies with birth defect treated by robots after Yorkshire engineering breakthrough

A ROBOT that can be implanted into the body will be used to treat a rare birth defect in babies, after a 'breakthrough' in tissue engineering by a Yorkshire university and a prestigious US hospital.

Engineers from University of Sheffield worked with Boston’s Children Hospital and Harvard Medical School to create a robot that can be used to help treat babies with oesophageal atresia, which affects how the oesophagus is connected to the stomach - meaning food can’t reach the stomach.

Current treatments are invasive and risky, and can lead to tears that require further surgeries, but using the robot is more accurate and less invasive for the babies, researchers found.

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The robot is attached to the baby’s oesphogus by two rings, which encourage tissue to grow by bridging the gap between the oesophagus and the stomach.

The University of Sheffield’s Dr Dana Damian, from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, said the device is inspired by the Foker technique, which currently uses sutures to manually pull the tissue over a period of time.

But the new method, whereby the robotic implant uses a motor to stimulate tissue growth, is far gentler.

Dr Damian said: “Although the technique is one of the best standards, sometimes the sutures surgeons attach to the oesophagus can tear which can result in repetitive surgeries or scar tissue can form that can cause problems for the patient in the future.

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“The robot we developed addresses this issue because it measures the force being applied and can be adapted at anytime throughout the treatment. With it being implanted in the patient, it means they have - in effect - a doctor by their side all the time, monitoring them and changing their treatment when needed.”

Oesophageal atresia is a rare genetic disease which affects about one in 4,000 babies born in the US and Europe.

It occurs when the upper and lower parts of the oesophagus don’t connect, which means food can’t reach the stomach. These gaps can be between three and 10 cm long.

Current treatment starts as early as three months old, and can take months. Usually, the baby is sedated during the treatment to ensure the sutures in place do not tear, but the study suggests that with this robot, babies would be free to move around and be allowed to interact with their parents while undergoing treatment, taking away some of the stress from both parties.

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The implant is powered by a control unit which remains outside of the body, attached to a vest, which means doctors can monitor the patient without impacting on the baby’s routine.

Dr Damian said: “The biggest challenge we faced was to design a robot that works in a technology-hostile environment, and to develop a robust physiologically-relevant interaction with the tissue that promotes its growth when there are so many unknowns about the underlying mechanisms.

“The robot we designed had to be soft and durable, air and water impermeable, abrasion resistant, non-corrosive and be able to be implanted for long term treatment.”

The research has been called a “breakthrough” in bioengineering and has the potential to be used in other tubular tissue problems, such as Short Bowel Syndrome.