Tactile Sensors Provide Sense of Touch to Minimally Invasive Surgery

Minimally invasive surgery (MIS) has revolutionized patient care by dramatically reducing trauma and recovery time. Yet despite the benefit for patients, this transition to minor incisions has presented a major obstacle for some surgeons who lament the loss of their sense of touch during a procedure. In an effort to meet this unmet clinical need, researchers are exploring ways to replicate the sense of touch through the integration of capacitive tactile sensors into next-generation MIS instruments.

Many experienced surgeons have relied on hands-on, tactile feedback to safely and effectively navigate the body during a range of open surgeries. An invasive procedure called a thoracotomy, for instance, has been employed to remove tumors and diseased portions of the lung in patients suffering from lung cancer. Medical imaging enables clinicians to pinpoint the location of the tumor prior to surgery, but its position often shifts when the lung is deflated for the procedure. As a result, surgeons often must rely on their sense of touch during surgery to identify the exact location of the tumor for removal.

A thoracotomy requires a large incision to be made in the patient’s side and the ribs to be spread, often resulting in a long and painful recovery. Thankfully, minimally invasive techniques such as video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) and laparoscopy now offer less-traumatic alternatives to many invasive procedures. The drawback, however, is that they strip surgeons of that powerful ability to palpate the tissue and to obtain tactile feedback.

Capacitive tactile sensing technology may be able to help surgeons recapture that sense of touch during minimally invasive surgery, however. Initial research into this area focused on remote translation of the sense of touch through a palpation device that was capable of mimicking what a surgeon would feel. While achieving the desired result, the design proved to be too complex for commercialization.

Prototype designs have also been hampered by the volume and bulk of electronic components required to impart the sense of touch. Limited by the inability to embed the electronics into the small instruments, previous designs were rendered impractical for clinical use owing to the external presence of dangling electronics and wires.

Diverging from past design approaches, however, PPS has identified a more-feasible, simpler approach to developing minimally invasive surgical tools that feature tactile feedback. By leveraging its DigiTacts high-sensitivity chip—which is typically used for IC touchscreen applications—PPS has figured out how to embed tactile pressure sensing technology into the tip of a laparoscopic or MIS instrument.

Embedding this capacitive tactile sensing technology into a MIS tool allows for the translation of tactile pressure sensing data into a digital pressure map. The image that is generated from pressure readings inside the body, in turn, enables surgeons to identify the location and presence of tumors and arteries that are not visible to the naked eye during a procedure. So, while surgeons may not recover their ability to physically palpate the tissue, they are able to obtain the same critical information by capturing the remote sense of touch.

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