Robotic surgeons could be mending bones in the future

Auckland 11 January 2007Researchers at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Engineering are building a robot to mend broken bones. An early prototype called FleP, or Flexible Parallel Robot, has been designed in the Department of Mechanical Engineering to perform realignment surgery on fractures in long bones, such as the femur in the leg.

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PhD student Andrew Graham has been working on the project for two years and said that robotic surgery could revolutionise the way operations are performed. "When a bone is fractured, correct alignment is essential to allow it to heal in the best anatomical position", Andrew Graham stated. "This research has the potential to significantly increase the success and accuracy of fracture realignments, reducing the need for conventional surgery and patient recovery times. The technology I'm developing is new so it also has a global market and presents an opportunity to diversify the New Zealand economy."

Andrew Graham explained that orthopaedics is ideally suited to robotic surgery because bones are more rigid than other parts of the human body and behave predictably. FleP works by precisely manipulating a broken bone back into place after a computer programme assesses the injury using complex medical algorithms. A surgeon oversees the whole procedure from behind a computer and issues commands through an interface or by voice.

This could solve problems associated with existing bone realignment procedures, where a surgeon uses an x-ray and traction machine to manually pull bones back into place. Andrew Graham noted that this procedure requires a high level of skill and concentration. Correct alignment is often difficult to achieve, resulting in further surgery and visits to hospital. Both patient and surgeon are also exposed to prolonged radiation.

The success of bone realignment surgery is variable and depends on the expertise of the operating surgeon. FleP would provide the means to digitally record surgery outcomes and provide analysis to further develop the field.

"Robotic surgery is still in its infancy, and we are only beginning to realise its future role", Andrew Graham stated. "Taking FleP from prototype stage to use in a clinical setting is a huge undertaking requiring a lot more time and investment."

Andrew Graham has been working in collaboration with a larger research group at the University, local hospitals and Massey University. The project has received funding from the Research Foundation, the Wishbone Trust and the University of Auckland.


Leslie Versweyveld

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