Sick Kids pediatric surgeons get helping hand from Canadian space technology

WATCH ABOVE: Kidsarm and Kidsarm2 are the medical offspring of Canadarm, and they’re poised to revolutionize the way doctors perform surgery. Crystal Goomansingh reports.

TORONTO – Any good surgeon knows that operations on delicate organs leave room for error – especially when your patient is a small child, or an infant.

But pediatric surgeons at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children may soon be able to rely on the helping hand of a semi-autonomous medical robot – dubbed the KidsArm – to perform some of the more risky components of surgery.

“Robots don’t get tired – they don’t have tremors – they can do the exact same work over and over again exactly the same, so there are advantages to robots,” Dr. James Drake, chief of neural surgery at Sick Kids, told Global News.

The robot, a direct descendant of the Canada Arm – the robotic arm on the International Space Station, is designed to be used by surgeons, in conjunction with real-time imaging technology, to suture delicate vessels like veins or arteries.

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KidsArm is currently designed to treat what is called a collidocal cyst – a congenital cyst of the liver which, when found in children, requires difficult surgery to correct.

Normally surgeons would use standard laparoscopic instruments to insert internal sutures, which is very difficult for even a skilled surgeon to do according to Drake.

The robot would be able to complete that part of the surgery on its own.

“With KidsArm the plan is to have something that is much more facile than an expert surgeon – and like any robot you can speed them up as long as everything is safe, because of the way they are designed to do things over and over again,” said Drake.

Much of the technology used to develop KidsArm is actually borrowed from the Canada Arm.

To build the robot Sick Kids partnered with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), the company that built the robotic space station extension. In fact, MDA used some of the same algorithms they provided for the Canada Arm in the technology.

READ MORE: Canadarm finds new home at Canada Aviation and Space Museum

KidsArm is currently being designed to work on patients’ abdomens, though Drake said the team can see the robots potential in other areas including face, neck and mouth surgeries, as well as neural surgery.

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In addition to KidsArm, another robot – nicknamed KidsArm 2 – is also being developed to specialize in neurosurgery.

But, the technology is still years away from being used on real patients. According to Sick Kids, there is much more testing to be done.

“We’re close to doing experiments in animals, but in order to bring this into the human environment I think we are looking at least a couple of years,” said Drake.

– With files from Global Toronto’s Crystal Goomansingh and Kathlene Calahan

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