In the tech world there are few companies that elicit both fear and respect, Google is one of them. While everyone this week was distracted playing Pac-Man on Google Maps, the big story is how they are taking over life science with robots. There is not an industry today that Google does not touch from farming (Shopping Express) to defense (with their acquisition of Boston Dynamics). In fact, their latest patent intends on locking the code on building multiple robot personalities. I am still wondering if a bipolar robot is a good idea… Now the big story, Google X Life Sciences division has partnered with Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon to build the ultimate platform for robotic surgery. The market for robotic surgery is growing at a pace of 12.6% CAGR. Wall Street believes that Mazor Robotics has 100% upside over the next 5 years, as well as the more pricy stock, Intuitive Surgical the market leader with their da Vinci machine). The concept of robot-assisted surgeries ahas come a long way from its roots in 1985 with the scalpel-wielding T-800. Today it is becoming as common as laparoscopic surgery, and why not just look at its precision in the video below:
As you can imagine real-world applications are more than painting a pretty picture, but include removing cancerous tissue, performing hysterectomies, and bypass surgery. The smaller incisions enabled by machines mean smaller scars and less bleeding for patients. Since its introduction, robotic surgery has had its share of skeptics, with a dozens of lawsuits around the US filed against Intuitive alleging that the da Vinci system claiming a higher rate of complications, including serious injuries and death. Even though the Food and Drug Administration eventually said that Intuitive had addressed all the agency’s concerns and approved a new version of the device, the company has continued to face allegations that its business practices allowed undertrained physicians to operate the devices, and that the devices themselves had critical problems.
So if the industry is growing with its share of distractors, could Google make it more efficient? While the deal does not involve Google’s robotic team (yet), the quote from the internet giant was fairly vague on its intentions:
The deal “will help explore how the latest innovations in computer science and advanced imaging and sensors could be integrated into tools that help surgeons as they operate,” Google said in a statement.
For example, existing robotic surgery platforms, such as Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci robots, have high-definition, 3-D capable endoscopes. A video feed gives a surgeon a view of your guts. Google says its goal is to use algorithms to analyze those on-screen images and do things like highlight blood vessels and display critical information on screen. In other words, says the
Google spokesperson, a new system would “help surgeons see better during surgery or help them more easily access information they rely on as they operate.” Similar technology powers the image-editing tools in Google’s photos app, as well as automated YouTube upload analysis that can recognize pirated content.
A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson says whatever the team comes up with might, for example, suggest the best places to make incisions based on the individual patient’s medical history—sort of a Google Maps for surgery. Google says it will not be involved in making the systems that actually control the surgical instruments. Johnson & Johnson already works with Intuitive Surgical on components for the da Vinci system, and says it will continue to do so, but the Google partnership will be for an entirely different hardware-and-software product. A spokesperson says the company hopes the new system will be more cost-effective for hospitals in developing nations, and that it’ll have an interface that improves a surgeon’s access to information during a procedure.
Given Google’s skill with software, it’s also tempting to hope that the company might actually make robot-assisted surgeries safer. These are incredible machines, but they’re still as fallible as the human controlling them. In 2013, the Colorado Medical Board charged physician Warren Kortz with malpractice after he injured several patients and left instruments inside them after robotic surgery procedures. And earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson stopped sales of its power morcellators—instruments used to cut up pieces of tissue for removal during a hysterectomy—after an FDA warning said morcellation could actually spread cancerous tissue during surgery. Whether the Google-J&J partnership can do all that remains to be seen. It needs to pass antitrust muster, first of all, and even then the project will have a long research and development phase. An actual product is still a year or two away. But one thing Google knows is how to build intuitive and straight-forward interfaces. Giving one of those to a surgeon controlling forceps- and scalpel-tipped robot arms poking around at a person’s innards seems like it would be a net win.
To sum up, the largest software/internet company has partnered with the largest medical supply/device firm to create a gigantic new medical robotic platform that includes powerful data with precise sensors. Where does that leave the patient, possibly in a better place although one has to pay the piper and it might be starting with the letter G.
Editor’s note: The next update will be the week of April 13th