Virtual Incision surgical robot in space brings potential for distance surgery on Earth

The news: Virtual Incision will send its surgical robot MIRA to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024 to perform preprogrammed simulated surgical testing on small objects remotely.

  • NASA recently awarded a grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Shane Farritor, Virtual Incision’s co-founder and chief technology officer, is a professor of engineering.

How it works: Unlike larger robotic surgery platforms that have 1,000-plus-pound mainframes and can’t fit in many operating rooms, MIRA is small enough to fit inside a microwave-size locker.

But, no, astronauts won’t be operated on anytime soon. MIRA’s mission entails cutting simulated tissue and manipulating small objects, Farritor told Insider Intelligence. Surgery in space will be programmed in advance so it won’t interfere with the astronauts’ work, he said.

So, what’s this all have to do with surgery on Earth? “Working with NASA aboard the space station will test how MIRA can make surgery accessible in even the most faraway places,” Virtual Incision CEO John Murphy said in a statement. Robotic surgery is precise, can reduce human error, and someday could enable remotely controlled procedures on patients from afar. Patients who live far from health systems and hospitals with staffing issues could greatly benefit.

Plus, the small incisions are minimally invasive, help patients heal faster, and can reduce a patient’s stay in the hospital, per Farritor.

The opportunity: Healthcare executives see robotic surgery as a legitimate way to digitally transform operating rooms.

  • 66% of providers say they’re very or somewhat likely to implement robotic technology in high-precision procedures and surgeries in the next two years, particularly as a 5G use case, according to Verizon’s 2021 5G Business Report.

The challenge: Many of today’s robotic surgery platforms are too large for operating rooms with their mainframe designs, Farritor noted. That’s why only 1 in 10 operating systems in the United States have access to robotic-assisted surgery, per Virtual Incision.

“Mainframes require a dedicated operating room, extensive setup, and specialized staff training,” Farritor said. “MIRA aims to make robotic-assisted surgery more accessible to surgeons and patients through its miniaturized design that is intended to simplify the surgery and setup.”

The big takeaway: The size and price of current robotic surgery systems may hold back implementation.

Larger systems like Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci were among the first to hit the market, but the ISS proof of concept could show how a compact robot can bridge distances from space to remote areas on Earth.

“Robotic-assisted surgery on Earth is already a reality, but logistical inefficiencies of current systems are keeping it from being accessible in any operating room on the planet,” Farritor said. “That’s where MIRA fits in. Our hope is that MIRA is authorized for use in US operating rooms before it heads to space.”

What’s next? Virtual Incision will submit the surgical robot to the FDA by the end of 2022, with potential commercial availability to follow.

Go deeper: Read more about robotics in healthcare in our Smart Hospitals report. This article originally appeared in Insider Intelligence's Digital Health Briefing—a daily recap of top stories reshaping the healthcare industry. Subscribe to have more hard-hitting takeaways delivered to your inbox daily.