Using Soft Robotics to Increase Safety and Success in Surgery

Lung cancer affects more than 230,000 Americans, and more than 120,000 will die from it every year. However, the efficiency and consistency of lung cancer biopsies are low, reaching nearly 81%, according to a recent study. Professor Sheila Russo, the founder and director of the Boston University Material Robotics Laboratory, works to combat untrustworthy cancer diagnoses using soft surgical robotics to make them more accurate and efficient.

Professor Russo, who became a CISE Faculty Affiliate in October 2022, brings extensive experience in the design, mechanics, materials, and manufacture of miniaturized smart, soft robots for minimally invasive surgeries. Her research intersects biomedical and soft robotics, materials and manufacturing, and materials technologies. She is interested in developing robots to improve human health, overcome current medical limitations, and help enable procedures that cannot be performed today.

Russo’s most recent paper, “A Millimeter-Scale Soft Robot for Tissue Biopsy Procedures,” studies the efficiency and safety of a small-scale soft robot in lung biopsy procedures. The research showed that with a smaller robot, specific areas, like deeper cavities of the lungs, are now more accessible. The lung cancer detection procedure is a tedious process with limitations due to the robot’s size; however, Russo’s smaller robots and research will enable more accurate diagnoses, biopsies, and tumor sampling. This research was recently featured in an Advanced Science News article. Furthermore, Russo’s work expands on developing low-cost soft robotic solutions for easier navigation in the lungs, as detailed in her paper “A Soft Robot for Peripheral Lung Cancer Biopsies,” featured on the cover of the journal Soft Robotics.

Professor Sheila Russo and her team at the Material Robotics Laboratory are working to improve the safety and efficiency of minimally invasive surgeries using soft robotics.


In addition, Russo and her team are working on designing and manufacturing robots that can safely travel through human anatomy, including sensing to aid surgeons and sharing how much force is being applied by the surgeon. 

In their paper, “A Soft Sensor for Bleeding Detection in Colonoscopies,” Russo, her students, and collaborators from Harvard Medical School provide the first proof of concept of a soft sensor they developed to detect bleeding events during colonoscopies. This work was featured on the cover of the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems. Russo’s team also developed “A Soft Robotic Haptic Feedback Glove for Colonoscopy Procedures” that surgeons can wear to ease navigation during interventional endoscopy. The glove provides surgeons with haptic feedback in the form of vibrations, pressure, or forces, similar to a phone vibration or motion sensor on a car. This capability tells a surgeon how much pressure or force they apply to the patient.  The added feedback for the surgeon may reduce the need for anesthesia, as the patient would feel less pressure or pain during the procedure. 

“Our goal is to facilitate safer colonoscopies for patients, potentially even reducing the need for anesthesia,” said Russo. “For a patient in an area around the world who cannot undergo anesthesia or does not have access to it, the soft robotic glove may enable the surgeon to perform the colonoscopy more gently.” 

“If you have a patient that cannot undergo anesthesia because they have some level of other morbidities or you are in a location in the world where you don’t have access to hospitals with an anesthesiologist in place, this technology allows the surgeon to perform the procedure more gently,” Russo said. 

While miniaturize-sized medical devices offer significant advantages to patients in terms of reducing the invasiveness of medical procedures, their small scale poses significant challenges to manufacturers. Russo said it could be challenging to successfully manufacture a robot that is small, smart, and precise enough to complete these procedures safely. “It is difficult to integrate safe sensing mechanisms into these robots so that they can know what the surroundings are like and operate in such a complex environment,” Russo said. 

With the decreased need for anesthesia and cost-effective surgical robotics solutions, healthcare equity and access to regular screening internationally will become more prevalent. Her drive to overcome these obstacles has already made a profound societal impact on the medical industry. Her other research includes the use of robotics in laser surgery and neuro surgeries. She has made minimally invasive surgeries less dangerous and susceptible to human error that may cause injury. By manufacturing a smaller soft robot, Russo has enabled medical breakthroughs that will lead to improved diagnoses and procedures, effectively saving lives. 

However, Professor Russo added that there is more to her work than the use and manufacturing of medical robotics. She said the most rewarding part of her work is the impact she has not just on the future of cancer and surgical robotics research but the effects her research has on the students in her lab. 

“Seeing the joy and enthusiasm on [the students’] faces when they see the impact their research has, or when their paper gets published and gets momentum from people in the community, is great,” she said. “When they see that their research has the potential to benefit society, I can tell they are motivated by this.” 

Russo, a first-generation college student, provided support and advice to females and other first-generation college students who hope to enter the world of STEM. She emphasized that starting in the field can be difficult but encouraged students to persevere because there are positive payoffs to hard work and determination in the STEM field. 

In 2020, Russo received the prestigious National Institute of Health (NIH) Trailblazer Award for New and Early Stage Investigators. In early 2019, Russo was recognized by The University Network as a “Woman Killin’ It in Robotics.” Russo was honored for her work in manufacturing the “millimeter-scale” materials used to make soft robots for minimally invasive procedures. The manufacturing process, called MORPH (Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/Hydraulic), combines three current fabrication techniques into one. 

Outside the Material Robotics Lab, Russo also teaches a graduate course on Medical Robotics. In the class, students identify a medical challenge, engineer a robotic solution, and complete hands-on activities in the lab. “Seeing students learning more about robotics and becoming passionate about the subject gives me a lot of motivation and enthusiasm daily,” Russo said.