Oesophageal atresia is a rare genetic disease, in which the upper and lower sections of a baby's oesophagus don't connect – there's a gap between them. Scientists from the University of Sheffield and Boston Children's Hospital have created what may be a better way of treating the condition, in the form of an implantable robotic device.

Ordinarily, oesophageal atresia is treated using a surgical technique known as the Foker procedure. It involves utilizing sutures to pull on the two ends of the oesophagus, encouraging them to grow toward one another over time.

"Doctors have been performing the Foker procedure, as they realized that tissue lengthening can be achieved by pulling on the tissue," says Sheffield's Dr. Dana Damian, who is leading the study. "However, it is unknown how much force should be applied to produce tissue lengthening. Although the technique is one of the best standards, sometimes the sutures surgeons attach to the oesophagus can tear which can result in repetitive surgeries or scar tissue can form that can cause problems for the patient in the future."

That's where the robotic device comes in.

Implanted alongside the oesophagus, it's attached to the organ via two rings (see the illustration above). Using an electric motor, it then gradually applies pressure, gently pulling the two ends of the oesophagus toward each other. Sensors in the device carefully measure and adjust the tension of the tissue. That tension doesn't simply stretch the tissue, but actually promotes new cell growth.

The device is powered by an external control unit, which is attached to a vest that the baby wears. This means that the infant can remain relatively mobile and active while undergoing treatment. By contrast, babies that have received the Foker procedure must remain largely immobile throughout the treatment period (they're typically sedated), so that they don't pull out the sutures.

"We have made a device that can provide long-term control of the tissue growth using on-board medical expertise," says Damian. "We further want to look at other tubular tissues, such as the intestine and the vascular system, to see if this sort of technology can be used to help with other conditions, such as short bowel syndrome."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.

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