Surgery feels ‘hands on’ when it’s not

U. LEEDS (UK) — New technology will give surgeons performing keyhole surgery a sense of touch, important when checking where tumors are and whether they are malignant or benign.

Keyhole surgery, in which surgeons operate through tiny incisions, has benefits for patients in that it reduces the chance of complications, shortens hospital stays, and speeds up recovery times. However, the procedure takes away a surgeon’s ability to feel the tissue they are operating on.

A solution devised by engineering students at the University of Leeds combines a computer-generated environment for virtual surgery and a hand-held device that applies pressure to the users’ hand. What the user feels will depend on how hard they are compressing the virtual tissue.

The students set up the system to simulate keyhole surgery on the liver, gathering measurements from a soft block of silicon to simulate what surgeons would ‘feel’ during keyhole procedures and feeding them into the hand-held device. They tested the system by embedding hard ball-bearings in the artificial, silicon liver and checking whether users could find them.

“This system might help surgeons to become more accurate in theater,” says engineering student Earle Jamieson. “Haptic devices that give users sensory feedback are becoming more common in surgery, but none of them quite match that true hands-on feeling. With our system, users can interact with the tissue they are operating on throughout the surgical procedure.”

“Judging from the feedback the students have received from practicing surgeons, this system has real, clinical potential,” says Peter Culmer, senior translational research fellow in surgical technologies, who supervised the work.

“In the short-term, it could be used as a training tool to help surgeons get a feel for keyhole surgery – quite literally. Looking further ahead, systems such as this could become used in operating theatres on a daily basis.”

“The haptic system that these students have developed goes a long way to solving one of the main disadvantages of keyhole surgery, namely the ability of the surgeon to feel the structure they are operating on,” says David Jayne, professor of surgery.

“If this research can be translated into the clinical setting, then it has the potential to offer benefits to surgeons and patients.”

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