The first of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics states that “a robot may not injure a human being.” That may be so, but McGill researchers have designed an automated anesthesiologist that can gently knock you out.
“McSleepy,TM”, the new system, administers drugs for general anesthesia and monitors their separate effects with no manual intervention. In fact, McSleepy recently performed the world’s first totally automated administration of an anesthetic on a patient undergoing a partial nephrectomy, a three-and-a-half-hour procedure involving the removal of a kidney tumour while leaving the non-cancerous part of the kidney intact.
“We have been working on closed-loop systems, where drugs are administered, their effects continuously monitored, and the doses are adjusted accordingly, for the last five years,” says associate professor of anesthesia Thomas Hemmerling, who heads ITAG (Intelligent Technology in Anesthesia research group), a team of anesthesiologists, biomedical scientists and engineers. McSleepy “thinks like an anesthesiologist, analyzes biological information and constantly adapts its own behaviour, even recognizing monitoring malfunction.”
The difference is McSleepy can calculate the appropriate drug doses for any given moment of anesthesia faster and more precisely than a human can.
Still, don’t expect McSleepy to fly solo during an operation anytime soon. The automated anesthesiologist assists its human counterparts the same way an automatic transmission assists drivers: by taking over some duties, it frees humans to better concentrate on other aspects of patient care, such as monitoring their patients’ breathing and circulation. McSleepy can also communicate with personal digital assistants, allowing an anesthesiologist to keep tabs on surgery while quickly checking up on another patient in a recovery room.
Hemmerling believes it will take about two years to perfect the system and hopes that a commercial system might be available within the next five years.
This research received funding from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.