Nano Tools: The Future of Minimally Invasive Surgery

Jessica Zachar, Research Unplugged intern
April 14, 2008
woman stands in front of powerpoint

Frecker describes how the scissors-forceps tool makes a cut.

"How many of you have had laparoscopic or arthroscopic surgery?" asked Mary Frecker at last Wednesday's well-attended Research Unplugged event. Some hands shot up. "Then you've had what's called a ‘minimally invasive' procedure," Frecker explained. Making a tiny incision and using small surgical instruments, surgeons can cut and suture within the body—but the numerous times they must insert and withdraw instruments during a single surgery increases both the length of the procedure and the risks of damaging tissue.

The solution? Frecker, professor of mechanical engineering, described her collaboration with colleagues at Penn State's Materials Research Institute and the Penn State College of Medicine to design new multifunctional instruments that will reduce the number of times surgeons need to "switch out" tools. Their first prototype, already patented, is a combination scissors-forceps tool that both grasps and cuts.

Frecker is now working on advances on an even smaller scale. "There is a need for multifunctional instruments that are an order of magnitude smaller than current instruments," she commented.


scale of nano tool as compared with penny

Showing the audience images and diagrams to help explain the process, Frecker explained how she and her team are creating a tinier version of their scissors-forceps tool, with flexible "compliant mechanisms" which do not have hinge joints. "We use pure zirconium nano particles—that's where the nano comes in—and a process called photolithography to make the instrument molds," said Frecker.

The next revolution in minimally invasive surgery is NOTES or Natural Orifice Transluminal Endoscopic Surgery, she added. This new approach allows procedures such as gall-bladder removals to be performed without a single entry-point incision, since the tiny surgical tools are encased in an endoscope and inserted through a natural orifice of the body.

According to Frecker, robotics can be useful for the NOTES procedures. She said, "The negative aspects of surgical robots are they're very expensive and they take up a lot of space, but they can be used to filter out hand tremors that even the most skilled surgeon can't filter out. They're well suited for procedures that require fine, precise work." When asked by an audience member if it was absolutely necessary to use robotics to handle these nano devices, Frecker responded with a laugh, "No, that's why we have graduate students."

Frecker's presentation generated a steady stream of questions from her audience. We look forward to next week's lecture, "Doctor Darwin: How Evolutionary Medicine Improves Patient Care" with Burt Humburg, M.D., a resident in internal medicine at Penn State's Hershey Medical Center.

Mary Frecker, Ph.D., is a professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at

Last Updated June 23, 2015