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Robots to perform highly accurate spinal surgery in UK

Key Points
  • Robots are becoming an increasingly useful tool for surgeons. 
  • Robotic arms can semi-autonomously drill holes into vertebrae. 
Nottingham Trent University

Robots are set to perform spinal surgery with "greater accuracy than humanly possible" as part of a new research project at a U.K. university.

A team at Nottingham Trent University has developed a system which enables two robotic arms "to semi-autonomously drill holes in individual vertebrae", the university said Wednesday. The team is led by Philip Breedon, professor of Smart Technologies at Nottingham Trent.

The research will also look at the utilization of augmented reality, which will give surgeons "live visual feedback" to show the depth of holes as they are being drilled. As of yet, no operations using the robotic technology have taken place, and there is no timetable for when they would take place.

"Surgeons performing life-changing operations to correct spinal conditions such as scoliosis or kyphosis have to ensure pinpoint levels of accuracy are achieved to avoid causing unnecessary and potentially serious injuries," Breedon said in a statement.

"This technology promises to deliver greater levels of accuracy than ever previously achieved – or even humanly possible – to improve the safety and efficiency of such procedures which are needed by people with serious spinal conditions," he added.

The holes in the vertebrae are used to insert "pedicle screws" that are in turn connected to deformity rod reducers. This enables operating teams to "lever individual vertebrae and realign the spine."

The robotic arms work together in the operation. One robot is connected to a vertebrae and moves with it, following the patient's natural movements. It passes on this information to a computer. A second robot makes automatic adjustments to ensure it stays on its "pre-defined path" and maintains accuracy while drilling.

The research is being carried out with David Brown, a professor from Nottingham Trent University's School of Science and Technology, and Bronek Boszczyk, Head of Spinal Surgery at Benedictus Krankenhaus Tutzing in Germany and a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University.

Boszczyk said the technology was an example of how robotics could "enhance and improve the way in which intrusive operations are carried out, improving patient safety and ensuring efficiency of process."

Robots are becoming an increasingly useful tool for surgeons. In 2018, for example, a team at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust used robotic surgery to carry out a "robotic total pelvic exenteration" to treat a patient with advanced rectal cancer.

The Royal Marsden said surgeons believed it was the first time the procedure – which removes all organs from the pelvic area – had been undertaken in the U.K. using "robotic surgical technology."

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