The Google X Life Sciences division is teaming up with Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon subsidiary to build a new and improved platform for robotic surgery, according to Wired magazine.
Robotic surgery works best for operations that require small incisions and levels of precision that would be difficult for even the nimblest human, according to Wired. In a demo video from Intuitive Surgical, a multi-armed machine is dextrous enough to paint a tiny picture—while guided by a human, at least. Real-world applications include removing cancerous tissue, performing hysterectomies, and bypass surgery, according to Wired. The smaller incisions enabled by machines mean smaller scars and less bleeding for patients, according to the article.
Robotic surgery has faced certain obstacles, according to Wired. Dozens of lawsuits in the U.S. have been filed against Intuitive alleging that its da Vinci system has a higher rate of complications, including serious injuries and death. Even though the Food and Drug Administration eventually said that Intuitive had addressed all the agency’s concernsand approved a new version of the device, the company has continued to face allegations that its business practices allowed undertrained physicians to operate the devices, and that the devices themselves had critical problems, according to the Wired report.
A Google spokesperson wouldn’t talk to Wired in detail about the company’s partnership with Johnson & Johnson, but a few details are already available, according to the report.
Existing robotic surgery platforms, such as Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci robots, have high-definition, 3-D capable endoscopes. A video feed gives a surgeon a view of your guts. Google says its goal is to use algorithms to analyze those on-screen images and do things like highlight blood vessels and display critical information on screen. A new system would “help surgeons see better during surgery or help them more easily access information they rely on as they operate.” Similar technology powers the image-editing tools in Google’s photos app, as well as automated YouTube upload analysis that can recognize pirated content, according to the Wired report.
A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson told Wired whatever the team comes up with might, for example, suggest the best places to make incisions based on the individual patient’s medical history—sort of a Google Maps for surgery. Google says it will not be involved in making the systems that actually control the surgical instruments.
Johnson & Johnson already works with Intuitive Surgical on components for the da Vinci system, and says it will continue to do so, but the Google partnership will be for an entirely different hardware-and-software product. A spokesperson told Wired the company hopes the new system will be more cost-effective for hospitals in developing nations, and that it’ll have an interface that improves a surgeon’s access to information during a procedure.
Given Google’s skill with software, it’s also tempting to hope that the company might actually make robot-assisted surgeries safer, according to Wired. Whether the Google-J&J partnership can do that remains to be seen. It needs to pass an antitrust hurdle, first, and even then the project will have a long research and development phase, according to the report. An actual product is still a year or two away. But Google knows how to build intuitive and straight-forward interfaces. Giving one of those to a surgeon controlling forceps- and scalpel-tipped robot arms operating inside the human body would be a net win, states Wired.