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About Sickkids
About SickKids

January 8, 2014

Canadian space tech will give SickKids surgeons a helping hand

By Margaret Sheridan

In today’s world it is common to see technology and research repurposed for multiple uses, though few adaptations are as cool as the impact the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm will have on paediatric surgery at SickKids.

A $10-million investment by the federal government in 2010 gave SickKids the boost it needed to develop KidsArm, the first paediatric surgical robot which is compact and nimble enough for use in small, cramped spaces. Working with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), SickKids’ Centre for Image-Guided Innovation & Therapeutic Intervention (CIGITI) has been focusing on perfecting the robot, which will be used across a broad range of departments, including cardiac surgery, neurosurgery and fetal surgery.

The goal, following an additional round of funding, will be to further miniaturize the device, and extend its function to more realistic and challenging environments, analogous to a live patient.  

“Dr. Peter Kim, a former general surgeon at SickKids,  conceived the original concept, and  Dr. James Drake, Head of Neurosurgery at SickKids, who assumed the lead of CIGITI in April 2011, shepherded the project to its current level,”  says Dr. Tomas Looi, CIGITI Project Director.  “They thought robotics would be ideal to automate the suturing task, which is time-consuming and repetitive. In addition, current robotic tools are designed for adults and are too big for kids – so our goal was to make things smaller and/or operate through a smaller opening.”

The work Looi and the CIGITI team have been doing on KidsArm hasn’t gone unnoticed outside SickKids. The team recently presented a paper at a robotics conference in Tokyo and was nominated as a Top 5 application paper out of over 900 submissions. While that is good news moving forward for the project, it doesn’t mean KidsArm is ready for commercial use.

“We have been conducting in vitro phantom testing where we see how well the system behaves on simulated silicone tubes,” Looi explains of KidsArm’s progress. “The first portion of this testing is complete and it has been captured in our paper. Our goal is to look at different methods to continue the research and potentially expand it into automated knot-tying.

“For the robotics, we use a combination of industrial robotics, control electronics, cameras and haptic (force feedback controllers),” Looi says. “The control software evolved directly from the Dextre and Canadarm programs at MDA, and the vision was also adapted from their satellite navigation work.”

SickKids is one of several research enterprises in Canada collaborating on this kind of technology. MDA, which helped design the Canadarm, also recently helped to create the University of Calgary’s neuroArm. It became the first robot in the world capable of performing surgery inside an MRI when it successfully completed its first operation in 2008.

In the early 2000’s the company was approached by Dr. Garnette Sutherland, a professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Calgary, about creating a robot that could complete surgical procedures while inside an MRI to cut down on the time required for surgery.

“Image acquisition takes about 30 minutes, after which surgery resumes,” says Sutherland. “The question ‘what if surgery could take place during imaging?’ led to the idea of developing an image-guided MR compatible robotic system that could be placed into the magnet bore, allowing visualization of a brain in real time while operating.”

The question, and the partnership with MDA, led to the creation of neuroArm, which will be commercially available in North America in early 2014.

KidsArm is the result of mass collaboration between the hospital and MDA, as well as L-3 MAPP and Philips, who brought space simulation and MR and ultrasound experience to the table. The surgical robot is being equally funded by SickKids, the federal government and the technical partners.

Learn more about KidsArm.