When watching machines drill car parts at speed thoughts of applying similar technology to the human brain may not naturally spring to mind.
But that is what a team of researchers at the University of Utah has successfully done. By developing an automated, robotic drill for use in human surgery, the team has demonstrated that a cranial procedure can be carried out 50 times faster with robot tech. So a surgery normally lasting two and half hours would be done in just two and half minutes.
The traditional way of using a hand drill “was like doing archaeology”, explained Dr William Couldwell, a neurosurgeon at U of U Health. “We had to slowly take away the bone to avoid sensitive structures.”
Enter the mechanical engineer.
“My expertise is dealing with the removal of metal quickly, so a neurosurgical drill was a new concept for me,” said Dr A. K. Balaji, associate professor in mechanical engineering at the U of U Health. “I was interested in developing a low-cost drill that could do a lot of the grunt work to reduce surgeon fatigue.”
The machine is supported by software with capabilities similar to Google Maps. Software which can also create a buffer zone to avoid sensitive structures.
“The software lets the surgeon choose the optimum path from point A to point B, like Google Maps. Think of the barriers like a construction zone,” said Balaji. “You slow down to navigate it safety.”
Drastically reducing the time a patient is in surgery decreases costs, human error and possibility of infections.
The drill was used on the translabyrinthine opening, a tricky area around the ear. “We thought this procedure would be a perfect proof of principle to show the accuracy of this technology,” Couldwell said. And there is an automatic emergency shut-off switch on the device. “If the drill gets too close to the facial nerve and irritation is monitored, the drill automatically turns off,” he added.
The team says the device could be used for a number of surgical procedures.
“This drill can be used for a variety of surgeries, like machining the perfect receptacle opening in the bone for a hip implant,” Couldwell said.
The findings were reported online in the May 1 issue of Neurosurgical Focus.