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Surgical Innovations

Penelope™ Tries Her Steady Hand at Surgery

Penelope and Dr. Michael Treat pose for a photo

Penelope™, a one-armed robotic scrub technician, will finally get to try her hand at surgery in March 2005. "It will be the robot's first surgical case, done as part of a research study to validate that the robot is working as expected," says Dr. Michael R. Treat, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. Dr. Treat conceived of the idea for Penelope in March 2001. Shortly after, he formed Robotic Surgical Tech, Inc., a spin-off company of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University. The company, located in Bronx, New York, is solely dedicated to designing surgical robots.

Dr. Treat says Penelope's first case will be simple and straightforward, but will certainly demonstrate the robot's ability to function in real surgery.

Spencer E. Amory, MD, FACS
Spencer E. Amory, MD, FACS
"It will be done under an IRB (Institutional Review Board) protocol. The case will probably be an excision of a subcutaneous mass, something like a lipoma or a cyst." The lead surgeon on the case will be Spencer E. Amory, MD, Chief, General Surgery Section, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

Penelope currently performs some of the tasks of a scrub technician. "In the operating room, the scrub technician is responsible for dispensing and retrieving surgical instruments kept on a tray called the Mayo stand. Penelope can do those basic functions," says Dr. Treat. "The key innovative feature is Penelope's use of machine vision. She has a digital camera that sees the surgical field, as well as software that can identify instruments within that field. But what makes our robot truly unique is that it is autonomous. Most surgical robots available today are run by the surgeon. Penelope is a stand-alone co-worker."

Penelope handing an instrument to Dr. Treat

Dr. Treat is particularly excited about Penelope's future advances. "Right now Penelope is configured as a server of instruments, but we have already developed innovations that will create a much more capable system down the line. In addition to dispensing instruments, the robot will be able to keep track of the instruments and count them," he explains. "Penelope is also the first surgical robot to have artificial intelligence; the computer's brain directs the robot's autonomous actions. Using this technology, Penelope will one day be able to learn the surgeon's preferences and keep track of them—even predicting what kinds of instruments the surgeon may want and keeping a data file of the surgeon's requests. Nothing like this has ever been seen in the OR."

Robotic Surgical Tech, Inc., is currently funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, as well as DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense). Dr. Treat says his little start-up has grown rapidly. "From a one-man operation we now have a staff of seven people and a new 2000-square foot space in the Bronx. It's very exciting to have the support of others as we continue to perfect Penelope. I want to especially thank the Department of Surgery at Columbia, and particularly Dr. Eric Rose for sharing my vision and supporting this project."

A longtime proponent of surgical technology, Dr. Treat believes Penelope will one day be regarded as a significant historical device. "Penelope is the first of her kind, but won't be the last. This robot embodies the future of surgery. I'm confident that someday descendants of this machine will be performing surgery, not just assisting." If Penelope proves to be clinically viable during the investigational stage, Dr. Treat hopes to offer the robot commercially in 2006.

When asked about his expectations for the robot's first case in March, Dr. Treat replies, "I'm confident Penelope will do fine. The robot has come a long way in the last year. It's faster than ever and getting better every day. I'm very happy that Dr. Amory will be our 'test pilot', since I think it's a better validation of the device to have someone who is not too wrapped up with the development process actually work with the system in the operating room. I'll simply be standing on the sidelines as a proud parent."

Dr. Treat and Penelope™ were featured in a January 18, 2005 New York Times article, "For Surgery, an Automated Helping Hand," by Marc Santora.

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