By: 25 July 2016
Robotic keyhole surgery nears reality thanks to an inventor, a surgeon and a patent attorney

Inventor Alex Berry and leading UK heart surgeon Richard Trimlett are using the latest 3D technology to create a new future for surgery.

By collaborating using 3D design software and 3D printing they are slashing design and production costs and making what Mr Trimlett describes as “a quantum leap in medical research”.

The pair unveiled their automated suturing tool, Sutrue, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, in Cannes, France, on 18 June. Sutrue is held like a pen and holds a standard curved surgical needle within a tiny sets of rollers and gears which rotate the needle.

Suturing is currently carried out by hand, with forceps used to pick up the needle after every stitch. Sutrue dispenses with the need for forceps, reducing the risk of infection by speeding up the stitching process. There are also implications for robotic surgery – the pair are in negotiation with the European Space Agency over the terms of a research agreement.

“Sutrue allows us to do something we can already do, but do it better and will also enable us to perform new keyhole robotic procedures that would be impossible by hand,” said Richard, of the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust, the largest specialist heart and lung centre in the UK.

“Sutrue allows wounds to be closed with consistency and accuracy. There are places, such as field hospitals and war zones, where you don’t have the luxury of time and have to suture with a degree of haste. You reduce the risk of infection by closing the wound more quickly.

“Sutrue also opens the way for the high end of keyhole robotics. We are currently quite limited in terms of being able to safely stich inside the body because of the difficulty of complex stitching by hand. With Sutrue we will be able to carry out new procedures robotically.

“The possibilities are almost limitless with these technologies and robotics. You will be able to have a remote virtual presence through force feedback which gives the user the sensation of touch. When you can’t feel things it slows you down. Force feedback is important, which is why we have the European Space Agency as a partner.”

The surgeon said that being able to share work on 3D CAD design files with Alex eliminated lengthy and expensive design processes and “suddenly made the development stage instantaneous”. The use of 3D printing has also brought costs of production down from an estimated £3.5million to around £50,000.

Alex now has research partners and financial backers, but things could have turned out very differently had he not received vital advice about how to best protect and commercialise his invention from patent attorney Tom Burt.

Alex said: “This took six years to develop and towards the start I went to Tom for a patent,  but he said: ‘No’.  That was such important advice – to wait until the device was ready before patenting it.”

Tom, of intellectual property specialists Abel and Imray, explained: “The invention had to be in a finalised form where Alex was able to get commercially useful patent protection, not just a patent.”

Alex, who found Abel and Imray via a search of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) website, now has a patent filed in the UK and, via the international Patent Cooperation Treaty, also has potential patent protection for the Sutrue in various countries across Europe and beyond.

“I had to bend accepted engineering rules to come up with the idea,” he said. “I’m now looking to sell my intellectual property to a manufacturer rather than take on the established companies which dominate the market.”

Picture caption: (Front left) Tom Burt, Richard Trimlett holding the Sutrue, and Alex Berry.