New robotic drill performs skull surgery 50 times faster

A robotic drill may perform your next skull surgery
A robotic drill may perform your next skull surgery

A robotic drill could perform your future surgery -- way, way faster than usual.

Researchers from the University of Utah have created an automated machine that can do a complicated cranial surgery 50 times faster than standard procedures. The team's approach reduces the surgery time from two hours with a hand drill to two-and-a-half minutes.

This specific surgery detailed in the paper -- which was published Monday in the journal "Neurosurgical Focus" -- is typically used to remove noncancerous tumors in patients with significant hearing loss. But the researchers say it's a "proof of principle" to show the robot could perform complex procedures that require experience and skill.

The drill produces fast, clean and safe cuts, reducing the time the wound is open and the patient is under anesthesia. This decreases infection, surgical costs and human error, according to the researchers, led by neurosurgeon William Couldwell.

"It's a time-saving device, more than anything," Couldwell told CNNTech.

automated robot drill

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While the use of automation and robotics in surgery has been growing for the past decade -- for example, medical robots already can help put screws in the spine or assist in hip replacement surgeries -- Couldwell said this type of technology hasn't been applied in skull-based surgery.

Here's how it works: First, a CT scan collects a patient's bone data and identifies the precise location of sensitive structures like nerves and major veins. Surgeons use the information from the CT scan to program the cutting path of the drill using special software developed by engineers on Couldwell's team.

"We can program [it] to drill the bone out safely just by using the patient's CT criteria," Couldwell said. "It basically machines out the bone."

The cutting path must avoid a number of sensitive features, such as the venous sinus, which drains blood from the brain. With the team's approach, the surgeon can program safety barriers along the cutting path within one to two millimeters of these sensitive areas.

A surgeon would stand by during the procedure and can turn off the machine at any time. The drill also has built-in safeguards: for example, it can detect if it's too close to a facial nerve and will automatically shut off.

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The drill was first tested on plastic blocks, and then on cadaver skulls. Over the process the team worked on several prototypes to ensure accuracy and to make the final version portable and light enough to move between operating rooms.

The team is now working to commercialize the drill, either alone or by partnering with a medical device manufacturer. Couldwell estimates it will go to market in one to two years.

The device is expected to cost $100,000 or less. That would be quite cost effective over time, Couldwell said, because it's extremely expensive to run an operating room. "If it saves two and a half hours per case, that's a significant amount of savings over time," he said.

The drill can also be applied to other surgical procedures, such as other complex openings of the skull or spine, and as an educational tool, according to the researchers.

"I would like to see it being used in major teaching hospitals because I think it would be a great teaching aid," Couldwell said.

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