Argenziano was involved with some of the first Food and Drug Administration clinical trials on robotic heart surgery more than 10 years ago. Now he says snake robots have become a commonly used tool that gives surgeons a whole new perspective.
"It's like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve," he said.
Argenziano and experts in robotics say the new creations work best when they are designed for very specific tasks. "The robot is a tool," he said. "It is no different in that sense than a scalpel. It's really a master-slave device."
Howie Choset has been researching and building robots, particularly snake robots, at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University for years.
Choset believes that his snake robot and others like it help reduce medical costs by making complex surgeries faster and easier. Choset says his new design is smaller and more flexible than earlier models: The diameter of the head is less than the size of a dime.
The size of surgical robots allows surgeons to operate with far less damage to the body, helping the patient heal faster. For example, instead of opening the entire chest up during heart surgery, a small incision is made, and the robot crawls inside to the proper spot.
Ashutosh Tewari of Cornell University Medical Center has used robotic tools to perform thousands of prostate operations. He said the precision of the tiny robotic tool was vital not just to cutting out cancerous tumors but to seeing exactly what nerves to leave intact.
Tewari said he was most excited about the potential for surgical robots to do things humans cannot do. He said the variety of sensors available for surgical robots keeps expanding, even as they get smaller. He said they may one day be able to test chemicals or blood in the body, or even the electrical connections in nerves.
Argenziano noted that robots aren't a magic cure. "The robot is good at certain things and it's not good at other things," he said. Some studies have found that the cost-effectiveness of surgical robots varies greatly. In smaller hospitals, the high cost of purchasing and maintaining a robot might not make sense.