The $500 Robotic Surgeon

02/28/2017 03:25 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2017

There have been a number of interesting innovations in the surgical field in recent years, but most have either been in the preparation process, or the various developments around robotic surgery at a fairly early (and expensive) stage.

A new project from the University of Michigan promises to change that. The $500 device aims to improve on existing tools and help surgeons in less technologically advanced facilities perform complex and precise procedures that are currently the preserve of surgeons with multi-million dollar kit.

The device, which is being manufactured by FlexDex Surgical, is a handheld instrument capable of making small incisions and stitching. It comes mounted to a surgeon's arm, with the center of rotation of the device located next to the wrist of the surgeon.

Early steps

It's already been tested during abdominal surgery at the University of Michigan hospital, and the team are confident that it can be applied effectively in a number of other domains, whether hernia operations or hysterectomies.

"This is the culmination of 10 years of effort and to know that the device is performing exactly as we expected it would, impacting patients' lives in a positive way—it's an amazing feeling. We always saw the potential, but now it's crystallized," the team say.

The aim is for the device to be as capable as the much more expensive Da Vinci robot that is commonplace in operating theaters around the world, but for considerably less money.

Both approaches focus on laparoscopy, which is a minimally invasive form of surgery that uses much smaller incisions than more traditional surgery. This helps the patient to heal quicker with less pain than is normal.

Increased mobility

Traditional laparoscopic tools have a limited range of motion and are not really very user friendly for the surgeon. Da Vinci was designed to overcome many of these problems, but the system costs around $1.5-2 million so is only in the price range of larger hospitals, and certainly out of reach of developing countries. This has limited the spread of the machine to a few thousand installations, most of which are in the U.S.

The FlexDex system isn't designed to compete directly with Da Vinci, especially in hospitals that already have the system installed, but it will allow minimally invasive surgery to become available in parts of the world that have to date had to make do with more traditional forms of surgery.

"FlexDex provides the functionality of robots at the cost of traditional hand-held laparoscopic instruments. We've disrupted the paradigm where surgeons and hospitals had to choose between high cost/high function and low cost/low function," the team say. "Our mission is to democratize minimally invasive surgery and expand its use around the U.S. and the world."

The hope is that the instruments will go on sale this year, and FlexDex have already raised nearly $10 million to support this development.

Check out the video below to see the system in action.

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