The New Features of Medical Robots: Getting Pregnant and Chain Smoking

November 12, 2016 by Dr. Steve Arar

As robotics develop, they're beginning to engage in very human behavior—like smoking and delivering a baby.

As robotics develop, they're beginning to engage in very human behavior—like smoking and delivering a baby.

With their brute force, relentless repetition of functions, and incredible speeds, robots have become indispensable in today’s industry. Factory automation may be the most well-known application of robots but their potential applications prove to go far beyond lifting heavy objects or performing fast and accurate movements.

While the researchers at the medical center of Columbia University are teaching novices by a pregnant patient simulator robot, scientists from Harvard University have designed a chain-smoking robot to study the mysteries of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Patient Simulators

To allow young doctors to face more realistic situations, Gaumard Scientific has designed Victoria which is a high-fidelity life-sized robot to simulate a pregnant patient on the verge of delivering a baby. Victoria, which is the most advanced and most expensive product the company offers, gives birth to another baby mannequin named Tory. Victoria blinks, breathes, and tells the doctor that the baby is coming!

Victoria delivering a baby. Image courtesy of Gaumard.

The company produces as many as 300 medical simulators and ships its products to the hospitals, nursing schools, and universities all over the world. With these products, nurses and doctors can practice reacting in difficult situations such as the case of a breech delivery, treating trauma patients, checking a newborn, and more. This provides the novices with the opportunity of learning, making mistakes, and gaining self-confidence without hurting patients in the process.

Victoria and Tory. Image courtesy of Gaumard.

According to Sally Miller from the Skills and Simulation Lab at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, TN, these patient simulators can provide a safe way to learn and make mistakes. She remembers a time when the newborn patient simulator had many wires coming out of the robot; however, the recent technology has super smart computing inside and utilizes wireless communication in order to be controlled remotely. They also look much more realistic.

The Chain-Smoking Robot

Scientists have also designed a robot that takes part in another very human activity: chain-smoking. This robot, built by Harvard, provides further insight into COPD. COPD is a disease caused by long-term poor airflow which manifests itself with coughs and shortness of breath and finally makes it difficult for the patient to walk up stairs or carry things.

The robot utilizes a rotating cigarette holder to load as many as 12 cigarettes at a time.


The chain-smoking robot. Image courtesy of the Wyss University.


To have a realistic model of human smoking, a programmable respirator is utilized which can mimic how humans hold a cigarette, inhale it, and, finally, exhale it slowly.  The robot lights the loaded cigarettes one by one and smokes them at customized intensities and frequencies. In this way, scientists can have an easily controlled subject which imitates a smoking style similar to the real cases.

The smoke produced by the robot is then guided through a transparent chip which contains living lung cells. The robot uses a channel to provide the nutrients necessary to sustain the lung cells. By incorporating a chip for healthy cells and another one for unhealthy cells, it is possible to compare the response of an unhealthy patient’s lung cells with those of a healthy person.

While mice are extremely useful in many medical experiments, they are not suitable to simulate the characteristics of human smoking. They breathe in and out mainly through their nose. Moreover, to force them to smoke, scientists need to put them in a smoke-filled box. Therefore, it is not easy to model different intensities and frequencies of smoking. Besides, the animal’s immune system different from that of a human and therefore they react differently than a human will. Hence, the results of these tests are not reliable. And last but not least, using a robot to perform these experiments will be a more humane approach than experimenting with animals.

Findings from the Real-Life Bender

Thanks to the chain-smoking robot, scientists have discovered some of the important features of the cells that are exposed to cigarette smoke. They found patterns of gene expression including upregulation of genes which attempt to protect the cells against oxidative stress. Gene expression is a tightly regulated process which turns the instructions in our DNA into functional products such as proteins. Simply put, gene expression not only turns on/off the process of making proteins but also controls the amount that is produced. Upregulation means that the process increases the quantity of a cellular component such as RNA or a protein.

Surprisingly, the new experiment showed that only after 9 cigarettes, the upregualtion of genes is observable.

Another important discovery of the research is that exposure to the cigarette smoke impairs the cilia –– a coat of tiny hairs which move the bacteria-carrying mucus out of the lungs. The experiment showed that the hairs of a patient’s cilia wave as much as those of a healthy individual; however, the movements are not organized enough when the cilia get exposed to the smoke. Since a patient’s cilia are not working properly, mucus gathers in the lungs and, consequently, the coughs start.

This image from a scanning electron microscope demonstrates the cilia (purple) on the lung epithelium. Image courtesy of Harvard University.

Scientists also examined the effect of electronic cigarettes on their electronic lung. Fortunately, the gene expression patterns and the disorganized cilia movements were not observed in this case. This gives some piece evidence that e-cigs might be safer.

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In short, the chain-smoking robot is ruining its lungs to help the researchers understand COPD better and find new solutions for it. The early results of this experiment are published in the journal Cell Systems.