"The aim is to create less invasive surgical technologies to treat a wide range of diseases in the womb, with considerably less risk to both mother and baby," says project leader Professor Sebastien Ourselin of the UCL Centre for Medical Image Computing.
The project, being funded by the Wellcome Trust, is to develop instruments based on the latest optics and robotics. For example, a very thin, highly flexible probe would be inserted into the womb of a woman carrying a child with spina bifida.
The head of the probe would have one strand fitted with a tiny camera using laser pulses and ultrasound detection – a combination known as photo-acoustic imaging – to generate a 3D image inside the womb. The probe’s other arms would also be fitted with tiny instruments that could carry a piece of gel or a patch that would be laid over the gap in the baby’s spine.
Currently, most designs are for a three-pronged device that has one arm fitted with a camera and two that are fitted with pincers or other instruments. “We are still in the design stage, so we could end up with a device with four or five arms in the end,” says Ourselin.