Meet the STAR: The Future Generation of Surgeons

Yuying Wang ‘23

It seems inevitable that robots will someday take over the world, but what if that day was approaching sooner than predicted? Recently, the field of robotic surgery has made a huge amount of progress towards the possibility of having robots perform all types of surgeries. In fact, a team from Johns Hopkins University has already successfully used a robot to perform multiple complex surgeries without any guidance from humans. While there are definitely advantages to having robots perform surgeries, the disadvantages also call for careful consideration.


In the United States and Europe, robotic surgery has been readily adopted for its use in the treatment of various medical conditions. Of the few medical facilities that have access to such advanced technology, the most commonly used clinical surgical system consists of a camera arm and mechanical arms to which the surgical instruments are attached to. During the surgery, the surgeon controls the arms of the robot from a high-definition, 3-D view of the surgical site. Compared to traditional techniques, the use of robots during surgery has led to enhanced precision, flexibility, and control during the operation; in addition, robotic surgery has enabled surgeons to perform more sophisticated procedures that may have been considered impossible before [2]. 


Recently, advances in robotic surgery have completely changed the projection for how surgeries will be performed in the future. In particular, the team at Johns Hopkins has already set a high standard for the future of robotic surgery; they created the first Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) [1]. First collaborating with the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 2016, Jin Kang, a Johns Hopkins professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Axel Krieger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Writing School of Engineering, created a prototype of the robot, designed to suture soft tissue [3]. A few years later, the team had upgraded the STAR with improved autonomy and surgical precision. So what makes the STAR so special? Visiting research scientist of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering claims that “it is the first robotic system to plan, adapt, and execute a surgical plan in soft tissue with minimal human intervention” [4]. And the Johns Hopkins team is still working towards totally hands-free robotic surgery! Just days ago, the STAR successfully performed laparoscopic surgery—a type of surgery that requires a “keyhole” incision to access the inside of the abdomen and pelvis region—in four animals; the procedure produced even better results than humans doing the same task. Given that the STAR is still in its experimental phase, who knows what it will be able to accomplish next?!


However, while the technology for robotic surgery has been continually getting better in regards to precision and accuracy, some people are growing weary of what the future holds. There certainly are many risks involved in robotic-assisted surgery. For example, the possibility for infection and bleeding is reportedly higher. Not to mention, the mechanical system itself could also fail during a procedure. If the camera, binocular lenses, robotic tower, robotic arms, or other involved equipment runs into an error, it will severely put the patient’s life in danger [5]. In addition, the cost of robotic-assisted surgery is significantly more expensive than traditional surgery. Ultimately, because the field of robotic surgery is still in its early stages, people are afraid that more and more faults will be found. Unfortunately, by then, it’ll be too late. 


In modern society, the field of science and technology is growing at a rapid rate. Robotic-assisted surgery has combined these two powerful areas of study into a method that has the ability to change the world. As of right now, robotic surgery is yet to go through many experimental trials and is yet to get approval from both scientists and the public. But, who knows? Maybe in the future, all surgeries will be performed by robots.