A Robot That Tugs on Pig Organs Could Save Human Babies


Matt Simon, Wired



The pig looks like any other pig, only it's been wearing a backpack for a week—in the name of science. Just behind its head sits a control box, with a battery and processor, from which runs a cable that enters through the pig’s flank. Once inside, the cable attaches to a very special robot clamped onto the pig's esophagus, the pathway to the stomach. Little by little, the robot lengthens, in turn lengthening the tube.


This pig doesn’t necessarily need a robot tugging on its esophagus, but children born with a section of theirs missing, a disorder known as esophageal atresia, may in the near future. What researchers detail today in the journal Science Robotics is how their robot could not only help treat this disorder, but also short bowel syndrome, in which a child loses large portions of the intestines to infection. Implantable robots, then, may help extend organs in the human body—though weirdly not by stretching, like you might assume is going on here.


Current treatment for esophageal atresia is not in the least bit simple or pleasant. Surgeons attach sutures to the two ends of the food tube and pull them out through incisions in the child’s back. “They tie these onto what looks like buttons on the kid's back,” says Boston Children's Hospital researcher Pierre Dupont, co-author of the paper. “And they apply tension to those ends in this way.” This lengthens the two disconnected bits of the esophagus, so when the surgeons put them back in the chest and sew them together, they now bridge what was once a gap.


Problem is, this lengthening can take up to a month, and the kid has to be sedated the whole time. The sutures are under a lot of tension, and if the patient moves, they could pop out. On top of that, the procedure could really be more precise: