A child’s esophagus can
become damaged through physical trauma or ingestion of toxic chemicals or
foreign objects — such as oven and drain cleaners, lye, laundry and dishwasher
detergents and batteries. Depending on the substance and the amount ingested,
children can develop esophageal strictures (scar tissue that narrows the esophagus) or esophageal perforations (holes in the
esophagus). These problems can also be complications of surgery for esophageal atresia, in which a baby is born without part of the esophagus.
Children with esophageal perforations have traditionally been treated with long courses of antibiotics and not eating by mouth. More recently, perforations have been treated with stents, and strictures with a combination of dilation and stenting. But stenting, while it can be effective, requires up to eight weeks of therapy and can have complications such as pain, retching and local pressure necrosis, a type of ulcer that may worsen perforation. Such concerns have led researchers to investigate alternative treatments for perforation and strictures.
Surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital have long sought a better solution for long-gap esophageal atresia, a rare birth defect in which part of the esophagus is missing. The current state-of-the art operation, called the Foker process, uses sutures anchored to children’s backs to gradually pull the unjoined ends of esophagus until they’re long enough to be stitched together. To keep the esophagus from tearing, children must be paralyzed in a medically induced coma, on mechanical ventilation, for one to four weeks. The lengthy ICU care means high costs, and the long period of immobilization can cause complications like bone fractures and blood clots.
Now, a Boston Children’s Hospital team has created an implantable robot that could lengthen the esophagus — and potentially other tubular organs like the intestine — while the child remains awake and mobile. As described today in Science Robotics, the device is attached only to the tissue being lengthened, so wouldn’t impede a child’s movement. …