Surgical robot maker Virtual Incision heads to space with NASA grant

Armed with a grant from NASA itself, robotic-assisted surgery will soon head for the final frontier.

The U.S. space agency handed down the funding to send a miniaturized surgical robot to the International Space Station (ISS) with the aim of proving just how widely accessible the technology can be.

The device in question comes from Virtual Incision, a University of Nebraska spinout that has spent the better part of the last two decades developing its minimally invasive Mira platform, named for its status as a “miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant.”

With NASA’s backing, the Mira system will hitch a ride to the ISS in 2024. The grant was specifically awarded to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where Virtual Incision co-founder Shane Farritor, Ph.D., is a professor of engineering.

“NASA has ambitious plans for long-duration space travel, and it’s important to test the capabilities of technology that may be beneficial during missions measured in months and years,” said Farritor, also chief technology officer at Virtual Incision.

“Mira continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible in [robotic-assisted surgery], and we are pleased with its performance so far during clinical trials,” Farritor continued. “We’re excited to take it a step further and help identify what could be possible in the future as space travel is becoming more of a reality for mankind.”

The Mira device clocks in at just two pounds, with an easy-to-maneuver design that can attach to any operating room table using a built-in adjustable stand. Once in place, the surgical robot is controlled with the hand controls and foot pedals of the system’s connected surgeon console, which also features a large screen to broadcast a real-time view from the robot’s endoscopic camera.

Aboard the ISS, Mira will take up only about a microwave oven’s worth of space. It’ll be housed in a small experiment locker, where it will be tasked with cutting simulated tissue, manipulating small objects and performing other activities to mimic the movements used in minimally invasive surgeries.

As it prepares to head for the stars in the coming years, Virtual Incision will also wrap up a clinical trial of the Mira platform to support its submission for FDA de novo clearance. The regulator gave the company the green light to carry out the final stage of the study in April, after Virtual Incision proved the safety of the device in its first in-human procedure last August—a robotically assisted right hemicolectomy.

That trial is backed by a recent influx of venture funding for Virtual Incision. Late last year, the company raked in $46 million in a series C round led by Endeavour Vision and Baird Capital. In addition to supporting the colon resection device’s path to commercialization, Virtual Incision said it would also use the funds to continue developing a range of other surgical robots for hernia repair, gallbladder removal, hysterectomy, sleeve gastrectomy and more.