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Scientists develop microrobot able to open clogged arteries

All Headlines 11:00 May 16, 2010

SEOUL, May 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korean scientists said Sunday they have developed a microsurgery robot that may help doctors better treat coronary artery disease within the next 10 years.

The team led by Park Jong-oh, a mechanical systems professor at Chonnam National University, said the robot and control system was successfully tested on a live "mini pig" after three years of development.

The robot, measuring 1 millimeter wide and 5mm long, was injected intravenously into the laboratory animal and then guided to an artery filled with plaque. The average diameter of a coronary artery is 2mm.

In humans, plaque build-ups hinder the flow of blood in arteries that supply oxygen and vital nutrients to organs like the heart and brain. If such conditions are left untreated, heart attacks and stroke, which are leading causes of death in many countries, can result.

"The experiment is the first of its kind carried out in the world," Park said. He stressed that moving and controlling the small robot inside an artery that is actually moving blood and maintaining blood pressure requires high-tech steering systems.

The robot is designed to move inside arteries guided by an indigenously developed movement control algorithm and a three-dimensional electromagnetic field regulated by a joystick. It also has a built-in "drill" or crushing head that can open clogged arteries. The drill is capable of up to 1,800 rotations per minute, while the entire robot can be moved 50mm per minute using the electromagnetic field.

The small robot is also equipped with an ultrasound probe, a drug injector and container, as well as a signal transceiver.

The scientist at the state-run university in Gwangju 329 kilometers south of Seoul said before the robot was injected into the pig, a three-dimensional computed tomography image was made to plot a course for the robot. A "fluoroscope," which is a kind of X-ray, was used for real-time feedback on the movement of the robot.

He said while manual control was used during the test, the robot can be programmed in advance to move to a predesignated point within the body.

The university and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said that if the procedure is perfected, the new robot system may open new horizons for a treatment method far safer than conventional surgery that will cause minimal discomfort to patients.

The robot is expected to be a substitute for present catheter treatment methods. Catheters are tubes used to treat clogging, but their relatively large diameter makes them unfit for use if the artery is smaller than 2.25mm.

The government and private sector set aside 20.33 billion (US$17.89 million) for the seven-year project that runs through 2014, with full development of the robot and control programs to be completed by the deadline. Afterwards, clinical tests will be carried out for about five years, with an operational device to reach hospitals around 2020 if all goes according to plan.

The school said over 22 patents and 20 research papers have been published on the robot and related systems.

In addition, Park and other scientists at Chonnam built a 20mm endoscope in 2001 and a capsule-type endoscope with a diameter of 11mm in early 2003.


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