Cardiorobotics, Developer of Snake Robot Technology, Aims to Alter Cardiac Surgery

8/6/09

The future of heart surgery is in something called a “snake robot,” at least according to the people at Newport, RI-based Cardiorobotics. We decided to check it out in more depth since Cardiorobotics just raised $11.6 million this week to see if it can demonstrate this is truly the next frontier in minimally invasive ways of fixing irregular heartbeats.

Cardiorobotics, a spinout from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, got its start in the nearby Pittsburgh Life Sciences Green House in 2005. The company now splits its operations between the Steel City and Newport. I got the update from the company’s president and CEO, Samuel Straface.

Like many medical device companies, Cardiorobotics has its sights on replacing a standard surgical procedure with something a lot less invasive. The company’s initial goal is to help patients avoid open-heart surgery for irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), particularly atrial fibrillation. Instead of cracking open the chest with a breastplate incision, and forcing patients to shoulder the risk of going on a heart-lung machine, Cardiorobotics envisions doing a single tiny incision in the chest, that has an opportunity to improve patient recovery and reduce the risk of complications from surgery. Atrial fibrillation is the most frequently diagnosed type of arrhythmia, and affects an estimated 2.3 million people in the U.S.

Cardiorobotics is planning on starting clinical trials of its device in Europe by the end of the year, and if everything goes right, the technology could win its first regulatory approval for the market in two years, Straface says. Both cardiac surgeons and cardiologists, he predicts, are going to be quick to adopt this technology.

“The snake robot is plug-and-play,” Straface said, adding that getting certified to use the robot will not be too difficult or expensive. “If you’ve played on video games, it’s not too different,” he said.

How is it supposed to really work? Straface helped walk through this idea step by step. The snake, officially called the Articulated Robotic MedProbe (ARM), is inserted through a small hole under the breastbone, and then carefully curves around the tight, finely structured muscle of the heart. The snake has a camera with its eyes focused on the heart tissue responsible for the arrhythmia. And with a delicate, finely timed movement, the snake cuts small lesions into each of the upper heart chambers, or atria, using a narrowly focused microwave laser or other energy emitter to kill those cells that were keeping the heart from functioning normally. Its work complete, the snake then eases itself back through the chest, adjusting itself again to avoid harming the tissues it moved through before. When the procedure is done, the snake robot gets thrown away.

Cardiorobotics set up its headquarters in Newport in 2007, and Straface took over as president and CEO this year after he previously served as an Executive-in-Residence at the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.

Other companies have similar robotic devices for heart surgery, notably Sunnyvale, CA-based … Next Page »

Eric Hal Schwartz was an intern in Xconomy's Seattle office. Follow @

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