In 2013, University of Sheffield roboticist Dana Damian was doing postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School affiliate Boston Children's Hospital when she learned of a procedure called the Foker technique. The surgery, performed on children with a rare congenital lung defect, calls for doctors to attach sutures to part of an infant's esophagus, then tie them off on the baby's back. Over time, the sutures lengthen the esophagus by pulling on it, stimulating tissue growth.
Although the technique can be effective, the risk of infection and complication is high, and the baby must remain under sedation for weeks. "We were surprised that this was the state of the art at the best pediatric hospital in the U.S.," Damian recalls. She and her team set out to build a less-invasive alternative. "We built a robot that basically does the same thing."
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