Soft Robot Could Improve Colonoscopies

Inside this capsule, a camera captures images of the colon.

For most people, the thought of a colonoscopy evokes dread. It’s invasive. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s pricey, costing several thousand dollars.

Nebraska researchers aim to change that. They hope that replacing the traditional colonoscope with a more patient-friendly robotic device encourages more people to have the procedure, considered the Cadillac of colorectal cancer screenings. The disease is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

“If colonoscopies can be made less uncomfortable, more people will accept their doctors’ recommendations to have the examination,” said Nebraska engineer Carl Nelson. “This could lead to better prevention and treatment of cancers and digestive disorders.”

Hossein Dehghani, recent doctoral graduate in engineering, led design of the robot, which uses compressed air to inflate a latex tube that elongates throughout the 5-foot-long colon. An attached camera captures images of the colon’s surface, enabling a physician to detect precancerous or cancerous polyps lining the large intestine.

The robot uses pliable latex, eliminating friction between the colon wall and the robot. This minimizes potential for a colon rupture and removes the chance of looping, the most common source of pain during a colonoscopy. The latex is disposable, cutting infection risks.

“Imagine a robot that deforms itself instead of deforming the colon,” Dehghani said. “That would decrease the pain significantly.”

Hossein Dehghani
Benjamin Terry
Carl Nelson

The goal is a self-driving robot, enhancing precision, reducing chances of human error and cutting costs by replacing the physician with a robot that can navigate.

“If you have an autonomous robot, where the physician can press a button and the robot does everything, he or she can just focus on the video,” Dehghani said. “We’re taking a big and significant step toward autonomous colonoscopy.”

Automation paves the way for telemedicine, Nebraska engineer Benjamin Terry said. Using the robot, doctors could perform colonoscopies remotely, increasing rural patients’ access to care.

Because the system’s sterile components are disposable and inexpensive, it also would be ideal for use in developing countries, where people have limited access to lifesaving exams.

Dehghani, Nelson and Terry are teaming with University of Nebraska Medical Center surgeon Dmitry Oleynikov, University of Nebraska Omaha computer scientist Prithviraj Dasgupta and Nebraska alumni Abolfazl Pourghodrat and Charles Welch.

The team is patenting this technology through NUtech Ventures, Nebraska’s technology commercialization affiliate. The Nebraska Research Initiative supports this research.

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