Google works with Johnson & Johnson to build robots for surgeons in Operating Room

Monday, March 30, 2015

Google's search for big new industries for its technology has led it to the operating room with the internet giant signing a robotics deal with J&J.

Google's search for big new industries for its technology has led it to the operating room.

The search giant is pooling resources and intellectual property with Johnson & Johnson to develop robots to assist surgeons. No financial terms were disclosed. J&J said in a statement that the deal is expected to close in the second quarter and has to be reviewed by antitrust authorities.

Google reckons it can use its machine-vision and image-analysis software to help surgeons see better as they operate or make it easier for them to get information that’s relevant to the surgery.

The focus is on so-called minimally-invasive surgery, which uses tools and other technology to reduce scarring, blood loss, pain and speed recovery times. Surgeons are increasingly using robotics and special cameras to control some of these tools and guide them to the right areas inside the body.

The partnership is with Ethicon, a part of J&J that focuses on surgical devices and technology. It will initially focus on procedures performed through open surgery, including complicated gynecological procedures, thoracic and colorectal surgeries, J&J said.

Google’s move into healthcare is more recent, part of a broader expansion into sectors such as transportation, robotics and communications that it hopes will produce large new businesses in coming decades.

The Life Sciences part of its Google X research lab last year unveiled projects in genomic data and nano-diagnostics led by Andrew Conrad, a co-founder of the National Genomics Institute.

“We hope to someday improve the experience of both surgeons and patients in the operating room,” Conrad said in a statement.

The surgical robotics partnership is not related to another Google other robotics initiative, called Replicant, that is developing large robots that can perform basic, repetitive human functions.

The surgical robotics effort aims to integrate Google’s expertise in computer science, advanced imaging and sensors into tools that surgeons use to operate. Real-time image analysis could help surgeons see better and software could highlight blood vessels, nerves or the edges of tumors that are difficult to see with the naked eye, Google said.

Google and Ethicon also hope to better organize the information surgeons need when they operate. Surgeons typically consult multiple separate screens in the operating room to check preoperative medical images, like MRIs, results of previous surgeries and lab tests, or understand how to navigate an unusual anatomical structure.

Google said software could place these images on the same screen that surgeons use to control robotic tools, reducing the need to look away at other screens during the procedures.

If the partnership bears fruit, it could pit J&J against Intuitive Surgical, the Silicon Valley maker of the da Vinci robot, which enables surgeons to remotely control surgical instruments from a computer console. Intuitive Surgical is the dominant maker of surgical robots, though its sales slowed recently due to declines in use among gynecologic surgeons.

“This announcement is just the latest confirmation that computer-assisted surgery continues to grow to the point that others can no longer sit on the sidelines,” Paige Bischoff, an Intuitive Surgical spokeswoman, said in an email.

Some J&J products are used with Intuitive robots, including surgical shears that are co-branded by both companies. “That relationship remains unchanged,” a J&J spokeswoman said.

J&J had previously disclosed internal research-and-development projects related to robotic technology. Gary Pruden, head of J&J’s global surgery group, said last year at an investor meeting that there were opportunities to lower costs and improve the functionality of robotics, according to a transcript.

He compared current robotic technology to computers 50 years ago that were so large they took up an entire room. In the future, surgical robots would become “laptop size,” Pruden said, according to the transcript.