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He develops robotics to assist surgery

Nobuhiko Hata, a radiologist who invents new technologies for use in surgery, is currently developing a swimming robot that will wriggle through the gastrointestinal tract. Nobuhiko Hata, a radiologist who invents new technologies for use in surgery, is currently developing a swimming robot that will wriggle through the gastrointestinal tract. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

As a schoolboy growing up in the Japanese city of Kobe, Nobuhiko "Noby" Hata used to listen to his mother's stories about her college days in a faraway place called Boston. "She kept talking about the snow, and about the Charles River," says Hata, technical director of image - guided therapy at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. "She kept saying what a beautiful river it was. This was planted in me very early, so I always knew I would come here."

Now a 12-year Boston veteran, Hata devotes his time to inventing new technologies for use in surgery. The most spectacular of these is his current project: a "swimming robot," about 2 centimeters long, that will wiggle through the human gastrointestinal tract, send back images, and perhaps even deliver therapy to the spot, without the surgeon ever having to pick up a scalpel.

"I think robotics should do something that humans cannot do," says Hata, 37.

Dr. Clare Tempany, professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, says that Hata brings an "international" perspective to his software projects. "He has a worldwide view of what we're doing in imaging therapy. He thinks about how this open source software can be applied in different countries." The programs Hata invents and improves are used in hospitals throughout the world.

Back in high school, Hata took an interest in robotics when he heard about the first artificial heart implant, but his first love was a 4 kilobyte personal computer. As a child of the Age of Electronics, he got his first PC in 1985. "It had a green monitor, 1,000 characters, and I had to boot it up with [cassette] tape," grins Hata. "But I really enjoyed programming it. It was like playing with building blocks -- making something tangible."

Hata entered the prestigious Precision Machinery Engineering program at the University of Tokyo, but he only found his calling after taking a class in which he was assigned a paper on the Jarvik-7 artificial heart.

"That was a shock," he says. "The idea that computers and robotics could become part of medicine was very powerful." Inspired, Hata joined a research lab where he took on the task of developing new computer technology to allow surgeons to simultaneously view images taken of their patients before and during surgery.

"The technology is widely applied today," says Hata. "I wasn't the inventor, but it was such a joy to know that something you work on is helping people!" By 1995, he had come to Brigham and Women's Hospital, where he continued his work designing software to make therapies less invasive to the patient. For example, he designed a program for a machine to guide a needle with the extraordinary precision required by certain surgeries.

Then, after a visit to Japan last year, he found new inspiration.

"In Japan they're thinking seriously on integrating robots as partners" with human beings, he says. This cooperative philosophy inspired Hata to think about applying mechanical techniques to problems he had previously only been thinking about through computers. The result: "the swimming robot."

There are similar devices under development, but Hata's has the distinction of "swimming" -- using oscillations in the magnetic field of an MRI machine to power its fins. It will literally dart like a minnow through the body's cavities, taking images, and, perhaps, releasing chemicals or directing a tiny laser at the problem area. Hata's robot is still in the early stages of development, but this month he will present a paper on it at a radiologists' conference in Berlin. He has high hopes.

"My goal is to minimize the invasiveness of procedures," he says, envisioning a future where a needle never even pierces a patient's skin, and where therapies are applied simply by swallowing a capsule with a little robot inside it. "If this capsule saves one or two lives, that's great," says Hata. "Imagine if it saves a thousand!"

Hometown: Chestnut Hill, by way of Kobe, Japan.

Family: Wife Noriko, daughter Rayna, 6, and son Kyle, 11 months.

Hobbies: No time for hobbies now, but before they had kids, the Hatas had season tickets to the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera. "We would drive to New York just to see an opera, and then drive back the same day."

Favorite opera: "La Boheme"; also, "Contes d'Hoffman" by Offenbach.

Philosophy: "On the day somebody closes my coffin, I want to count how many people I've saved. If it's more than one, then my presence was worthwhile."

(Correction: Because of reporting and editing errors, a profile of Nobuhiko Hata in the May 7 Health/Science section included several errors. Hata is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a radiology researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and he co-invented a "swimming" robot that can transmit images from inside the gastrointestinal tract.)