This Tiny Magnetic Tube May Enable Remote-Controlled Surgery

·2 min read
Stefan Weis / ETH Zurich
Stefan Weis / ETH Zurich

Stroke patients may soon benefit from magnetic, remote-controlled medical devices that clear away their blood clots and minimize their risk for long-term brain damage.

Typically, surgeons break up blood clots in the brain using a long, thin tube called a catheter (not to be confused with the one used for waste disposal, mind you), but the procedure requires a steady hand and a high degree of skill. Researchers at ETH Zürich are developing a catheter that can be remotely controlled by magnets—opening the door for tele-surgery. They founded a company called Nanoflex last November to fine-tune their device and get it ready for clinical use.

“With our system, it will be possible to carry out procedures from a distance by remote control and on a screen,” Nanoflex engineer Silvia Viviani said in an ETH Zürich news article. Such a use is particularly relevant for stroke patients: They face worse outcomes the longer that blood clots persist and can’t otherwise be treated at smaller medical centers that lack trained neurosurgeons.

Using a magnetic system also allowed the researchers to design a smaller, more flexible catheter. Directed by a device similar to a video game controller, Nanoflex’ catheter move in any direction, in contrast to traditional wire catheters that can only be pulled forward and backward.

"Not only can the catheter tip be bent in any direction thanks to a magnetic head; it's also smaller, more maneuverable and safer due to the softness of the material," Nanoflex co-founder Christophe Chautems said in the ETH Zürich article.

In a 2017 study, a prototype of the catheter demonstrated more dexterity in navigating complex human anatomy. The researchers hope that the technology may one day help them access areas of the brain where no wire catheter has gone before—opening new doors to brain surgery and saving patients’ lives.

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