The first generation of these "silicon surgeons" is now taking up residencies at major medical centers. They are guiding surgeons in delicate brain surgery and helping to replace broken hip bones. And soon, the patient may not even have to be in the same room as the surgeon. Teleoperation systems, such as those being developed by NASA and the University of California, Berkeley, promise to make it possible for the most skilled surgeons to operate on patients in distant cities--or on bases on the moon. With this electronic help, experts believe that surgery will be safer and more precise, yet less costly. And the patient will far more likely to recover quickly.
Because of the promise, the National Science Foundation recently anted up $12.9 million to form a five-year cooperative to bring several leaders of the effort together in an Engineering Research Center in Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology, to be headed by the Johns Hopkins University. Overall funding, including sources such as industry, is expected to be about $35 million over the five-year period.
Image: KEITH WELLER, Johns Hopkins
The collaboration includes the Hopkins School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Project on Image Guided Surgery and its collaborator, the Surgical Planning Group at Harvard University's Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Carnegie Mellon University and its affiliate, Shadyside Hospital.
The goal is that, by combining highly advanced information technology with surgical expertise, the center will usher in dramatic changes in medical care--specifically less invasive surgery and lower costs. "Computer-integrated surgical systems and technology will have the same effect on health care in the next 20 years that computer-integrated manufacturing had on industrial production over the past 20 years and for many of the same reasons," says Russell H. Taylor, a Johns Hopkins University computer scientist whose present research is aimed at developing "basic techniques for combining machine skill with human judgment to do tasks that neither could do alone."
The new research center will be set up in new and renovated space at Hopkins' Homewood and medical campuses in Baltimore. It will draw upon experts in computer science and robotics, electrical, mechanical and biomedical engineering, as well as physicians specializing in fields such as radiology, neurosurgery, urology, orthopedics, ophthalmology and many other surgical disciplines.