The Future of Surgical Robotics


Register for the Contextual Robotics Forum, on Oct. 30.

As an undergraduate at UC San Diego, Jonathan Sorger never expected that he’d end up working with robots. But as a bioengineering major, he was exposed to the field of cardiac mechanics through professor Andrew McCulloch, a Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering and Medicine and co-director of the Cardiac Mechanics Research Group at UC San Diego.

“This led to my applying medical imaging to cardiac interventions during the course of my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins under Elliot McVeigh, now a professor at UC San Diego,” said Sorger. “My thesis focused on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) applied to ischemic heart disease. When I started at Intuitive Surgical I had zero experience with robotics. They hired me because of my imaging expertise, seeing that imaging would play into robotics in the future.”

New Surgical Technology

Sorger, Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, California, is one of the ten keynote speakers at the UC San Diego Contextual Robotics Forum on Oct. 30, 2015. He will offer a vision of the future of medical robotics, including how technologies will continue to augment the surgical experience.

“As new surgical technology is developed, we will be able to attach it to robots and access parts of the body that simply were not possible before,” said Sorger. “I see surgical robots becoming far more effective.”

His talk will outline current surgical procedures affected by the field of robotics and address some of the clinical challenges faced by surgeons.

“For example, we have the ability to perform minimally invasive surgery on patients with prostate cancer, but there are still issues with positive surgical margins and incontinence,” said Sorger.

Intuitive Surgical has had success with robotics in surgery, developing the da Vinci Surgical System – a telemanipulator that allows doctors to perform less invasive procedures.

Lighting Up Cancer

“With our newest model of the da Vinci, we have the potential to use fluorescence to light up cancer,” said Sorger. “In fact, there’s a group at UC San Diego trying to develop this method.”

In collaboration with UC San Diego professor Roger Tsien (Nobel Prize, Chemistry 2008), Quyen Nguyen, a professor of otolaryngology at UC San Diego, is working on the development of Live Molecular Navigation (LMN) for Fluorescent Guided Surgery (FGS) also known as “color-coded surgery”.

Another UC San Diego professor, David Vera, has been working on developing a fluorescent molecule that has the potential to make robotically assisted surgery even less invasive.

“The original idea was to use a vision system to light up fluorophores in the blood, so that surgeons could identify blood vessels or other structures that they did not want to cut,” said Sorger. “We’ve seen success already in colorectal procedures, where a patient has part of their colon removed. Surgeons at UC Irvine have been using the technology to significantly reduce leak rates following surgery.”

The work that Drs. Nguyen and Vera are performing has the potential to make surgery even more effective from a cancer-control perspective, Sorger explained.

The Path to Robotics

Sorger acknowledges that leveraging his imaging background allowed him to move from academia to radiation oncology to surgical robotics.

“To graduating seniors or mid-career professionals looking for a change, I’d say, leverage the expertise you have to achieve your dreams,” said Sorger. “It’s up to you – the individual – to make a difference.”

2015 Contextual Robotics Forum

The Contextual Robotics Forum at UC San Diego offers attendees access to engineers, cognitive and neuroscientists, computer and data scientists, technologists and social scientists who are advancing the converging technologies that will lead to smarter robotic systems for medicine, autonomous vehicles, first-response scenarios, consumer applications and more.

Gain new perspectives and insights on robotics technologies aimed at revolutionizing medicine, agriculture, environmental monitoring, disaster response and more.

Network with Southern California’s robotics community including UC San Diego faculty and professionals from the private and public sector.

Attend keynote talks, multiple networking sessions and a technology showcase featuring the latest robotics technologies coming out of UC San Diego.

Register for the Contextual Robotics Forum.