A prototype of a robotic device, resembling a caterpillar has been launched by American scientists in the hope of performing precision heart operations without the use of anesthetics.
The scientists from the Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania released a report in the journal New Scientist, describing the robot, which measures about 2 cm when contracted, and 'crawls' at about 18cm per minute, across the heart.
The device is said to work by it being first inserted below the ribcage by keyhole surgery and then attached to the heart, via a vacuum line to its suction feet. Once attached it is controlled by three rigid wires, which are pushed and pulled by motors outside the body.
The robot may also carry a needle, which could be used to inject stem cells and growth factor genes as well take tissue samples from the heart's surface. The device could also be used with an added radio-frequency probe to treat faulty heart rhythms by killing damaged tissue.
For surveillance purposes, a camera added to the device would help surgeons see specifically where the robot is on the heart's surface.
Lead researcher Dr. Cameron Riviere says that the device avoids having to stop the heart, disturb the ribcage, or deflate the left lung to access the heart, -hence reducing the risk of illness linked to heart bypass procedures.
So far the device has been tested successfully on pigs, performing the fitting of pacemaker leads and the injection of dye into hearts. Yet, Riviere says that using the robot on humans would be a much more difficult step and the device is years away from clinical use.
Accordingly, the next stage will be to do similar tests using a sheep's heart, with the researchers hoping the HeartLander would be available for surgical use, within the next three to four years.
Says Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation:"Whilst this is interesting, it remains to be seen whether it can deliver useful treatments for heart patients.
"This could theoretically be a vehicle for delivering cell therapies to damaged areas of the heart, so could ultimately be a useful tool, but at the moment we still don't know if such therapies work.
"A lot more research is needed to determine whether something delivered to the outside surface of the heart can modify activity on the inside - so this is interesting, but currently a long way from practical use in heart therapy."