An Automated Drill Could Soon Assist Doctors In Surgeries

The automatic drill developed for cranial drilling. Couldwell et al./University of Utah 

Researchers have developed an automatic drill that could soon be used in delicate medical procedures, like cranial surgery, significantly reducing surgery time as well as the incidence of infections, human errors, and surgical costs.

The tech, developed by researchers at the University of Utah, was announced in Neurological Focus. The drill is 50 times faster than what humans can do themselves, decreasing the time of standard cranial procedures from two hours to two and a half minutes.

Currently, brain surgeries are complex medical procedures that require skilled surgeons to slowly and carefully hand drill openings.

“It was like doing archaeology," lead author and neurosurgeon Dr William Couldwell said in a statement. "We had to slowly take away the bone to avoid sensitive structures."

He added: “We knew the technology was already available in the machine world, but no one ever applied it to medical applications.”

Couldwell involved Professor A K Balaji, a mechanical engineer, in the project. Together with their teams they developed a new surgical drill from scratch, as well as software to guide the machine.

“My expertise is dealing with the removal of metal quickly, so a neurosurgical drill was a new concept for me,” Professor Balaji explained. “I was interested in developing a low-cost drill that could do a lot of the grunt work to reduce surgeon fatigue.”

For the updated procedure, a patient has their skull mapped using a CT scan, which the software then uses to develop the optimum path for the surgeon to follow. The researchers compare it to Google Maps. The drill has an “A to B” path based on the CT scan and surgeons can add safety barriers around the most sensitive areas. If the drill gets too close to any of these barriers, it turns itself off.

Couldwell successfully tested the new tech on a translabyrinthine procedure, a type of surgery that removes benign tumors that form around the acoustic nerve, which brings sound information from the ear to the brain. It’s a fairly common surgery, performed thousands of times every year. But it’s not without difficulties as the surgeon needs to avoid facial nerves as well as the venous sinus, a large vein coming from the brain.

“We thought this procedure would be a perfect proof of principle to show the accuracy of this technology,” Couldwell said.

The team is now looking for ways to make the drill more widely available and say it could be used to perform many different surgeries, such as hip replacement.

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