Robotic snake gobbles tumors

PITTSBURGH – Patients with colon tumors, or colorectal cancer, may sometimes face a difficult treatment depending upon the location and size of the lesion. 

Now, a newly FDA-approved flex robotic scope is helping colorectal surgeons see and remove tumors in a minimally invasive way. 

Kelly Benson was healthy and active her entire life, until six months ago, when she would suddenly double over.

"It would literally just suck the air right out of your body. The pain was that intense," Benson, 50, said.

Doctors found a tumor larger than a golf ball inside Benson's colon.  

"It was a benign lesion, but it was big enough that it could not be removed via an endoscopic approach," said Dr. Javier Salgado, a colorectal surgeon.

Instead, Salgado was among the first surgeons in the country to use a newly FDA-approved flexible device: a robotic attachment that moves like a snake. 

Although the device is new, Benson had no reservations. 

She's a machine shop plant manager and is comfortable with high-tech options.  

"Automation and robotics is something I'm very familiar with," she said.

The robotic attachment allows surgeons to have better access through the rectum and colon.

"We dock it, which means it remains still and then deploy our instruments, which have very good articulation so we can excise the lesions," Salgado said.

With this, surgeons can avoid open abdominal surgery, sparing patients weeks of recovery. Benson was up and moving the day after the procedure, and back to work and travel right away.

"I'm right back to my normal, outgoing, lively self," she said.  

Although Benson's tumor was benign, surgeons can use the robot for the removal of cancerous lesions.

Salgado said patients with advanced rectal cancer may not be good candidates for the surgery right now, but it may be an option in the future.