May 2018 Vanderbilt University News

The path from university lab to commercialisation is especially complex in the biotech industry. Challenges range from long lead times, sometimes measured in decades, to the costs of transforming ideas into innovations, as well as issues of intellectual property, patenting and licensing. Yet Nabil Simaan, a mechanical engineering professor who specialises in designing robots to help surgeons perform operations in areas of the body that are hard to reach, does not deter easily. He has years of experience working collaboratively with commercial entities while collecting numerous patents—three  in 2017 alone. Simaan’s Advanced Robotics and Mechanism Applications Laboratory at Vanderbilt leads the way in advancing several robotics technologies for medical use, including miniature robots for single small-incision, cochlear implant and minimally invasive throat surgeries.

Nabal Simaans

Nabil Simaan’s Advanced Robotics and Mechanism Applications Laboratory at Vanderbilt leads the way in advancing several robotics technologies for medical use.

Robo toolIREP is licensed to Titan Medical.

“A key focus of the research is the design of intelligent robotic devices that can sense and regulate their interaction with the anatomy,” Simaan said. “These robots can be used collaboratively with a surgeon to safely excise or ablate tissue.” Simaan is co-inventor of the Insertable Robotic Effector Platform. IREP—a portfolio of multiple patents—is believed to be the world’s smallest robotic system and was hailed as a medical science breakthrough in 2013. It is licensed to Titan Medical and led to the development of the Titan SPORT system for single-port access surgery.

The minuscule robotic surgical tool enters the body through a remarkably small incision—six-tenths of an inch, or 15 millimeters. Once inside the body, it unfolds to reveal a camera system for 3D visualisation and imaging feedback, and two snakelike arms that perform the surgery. IREP has gone through several development stages. First, Columbia University computer scientist Peter Allen devised an insertable camera that tilted, panned and followed the movements of surgical instruments from inside the abdomen, and projected its vision onto a computer screen. Surgeon Dennis Fowler at Columbia performed a number of appendectomies, nephroscopies and other operations on porcine models using the technology.

At Vanderbilt, Simaan equipped IREP with two snakelike arms built from a series of push-pull flexible beams that can bend and twist the arms in the required directions. Simaan also gave IREP wrists and grippers to manipulate objects. “Typically, as a research lab, we try to be at least 10 years ahead of industry to help usher in new approaches to surgery via new technologies,” he said. “But university researchers and industry are catching up.” Simaan moved the ARMA lab to Vanderbilt when he joined the engineering faculty in 2012.

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