Cora Peterson: We're going to see things no one has ever seen before. Just think about it.
Grant: That's the trouble. I am.
-- Fantastic Voyage, 1966
In the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage, a miniaturized submarine and crew are injected into a diplomat who was nearly assassinated in order to save his life by removing a cerebral thrombus. Today, that idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Snake robots—tiny, surgeon-controlled robots that enter the human body to perform surgical procedures—are increasingly being used to operate on patients and identify diseases within the body as an alternative to traditional open surgery. Instead of having to cut open up a patient's entire chest, for example, to get direct visual and palpable access to the heart, only a small incision is needed to get the robot inside.
At the moment, these robots are tethered, controlled by surgeons through computers. But in the not-so-distant future, they will roam free, moving through the body on their own and performing a variety of functions.
"It won't be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers," said Dr. Michael Argenziano, the Chief of Adult Cardiac Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
This kind of advanced robotics—which has applications far beyond surgery, such as manufacturing, handling dangerous material or working in space—is big business. According to a new study by WinterGreen Research, "Snake robot device markets at $15.5 million in 2011 are anticipated to reach $2.3 billion by 2018 as next devices, systems, and instruments are introduced to manage access to difficult spaces through small ports when large openings are unavailable or inconvenient."
Argenziano—who participated in some of the first FDA clinical trials on robotic heart surgery over a decade ago—says snake robots are becoming a common surgical tool that offers surgeons a new perspective. But it will be untethered nanobots that will take health and medicine to new levels of hands-free engagement, such as being deployed to hunt for and destroy cancer cells.
"It's like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve," said Argenziano.
Shrunken surgeons working inside the body? Modern medicine is definitely on a fantastic voyage—but this time, it's not a sci-fi film from the '60s.