Robotic baby harp seals to help cancer patients at UCI

Steve Zylius / University Communications

Robotic baby harp seal “Paro” has numerous sensors and responds to voices, petting and light by squealing, blinking and moving its head, tail and flippers.

Steve Zylius / University Communications

Therapy robot Paro recently accompanied cancer patient Kirsten Osgood, 70, through a 7½-hour chemotherapy session at UC Irvine Medical Center.


Children displaced by the March 11 tsunami play with 'Paro' at temporary housing in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture on February 11, 2012.


Tsuyako Kumagai, a 47-year-old housewife and a survivor of March 11 tsunami disaster, cuddles with a Paro in Japan.

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Pato twins at the Japanese Robotics Awards in 2006.

Cancer doctors at the University of California, Irvine are inviting their female chemotherapy patients into a first-ever study involving therapeutic robots — specifically, four fluffy baby harp seal robots. The UCI researchers will be measuring their potential healing effect on cancer recovery.

The idea is to test them as a form of “complementary therapy,” which is therapy intended to support conventional treatments, like chemo.

“Animal therapy has been shown to make people feel better," said Dr. Krishnansu Tewari, a gynecological ongcologist who is the lead investigator in the study. "People who feel better, do better."

But, Tewari says, because chemotherapy patients have depressed immune systems, many can’t be near live animals. And that’s where the robotic seals come in.

The Japanese manufacturer of the four faux creatures chose harp seals because they’d seem more real to patients who are likely to never have actually seen one in real life.

"They wanted something that people aren't accustomed to interacting with," Tewari said. "They felt that if they used a robot that looked like a Golden Retriever, it would be obvious that it's fake."

But that still begs the question: just how cuddly and responsive is a mechanical baby harp seal?

“If you touch its whiskers, it moves. It responds to your voice," Tewari says. "You can name it what you want and it’ll respond to that name. It tracks you with its head and eyes. It’s a very engaging animal robot.”

Tewari said UC Irvine will enroll 100 women in a year-long study funded by the Queen of Hearts Foundation, a Newport Beach non-profit organization that raises funds for ovarian cancer research. The study will measure the mood, stress and pain levels of the women randomly assigned to interact with robotic baby harp seals against women who rest, play video games or watch TV during their chemotherapy treatments.

So far 16 patients are signed up for the study, Tewari said.

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