Thursday, June 26, 2003

Space doctor to help build expertise in robotic surgery

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Dr. Tim Broderick (left) floats in NASA's zero-gravity training plane as Dr. Dan Tang, a surgical resident at Virginia Commonwealth University, works with a simulator designed to mimic performing surgery in space. At right is Breh Harnett, a technician with VCU.
(Photo courtesy of NASA)
| ZOOM |
If an astronaut ever needs surgery in space, a doctor soon to be in Cincinnati will play an important role in making it possible.

Along the way, he plans to bring some of that space technology to Earth by playing a leading role in an effort by the University of Cincinnati to get more involved in the field of robotic surgery.

Dr. Tim Broderick is a 38-year-old surgeon and researcher at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. He also is part of NASA's Medical Informatics and Technology Applications Consortium(MITAC), which is based at Virginia Commonwealth but includes several universities and businesses that work with NASA and the Defense Department on high-tech medical projects.

Broderick, a Cincinnati native from a big family of physicians, is moving back to his hometown in August to become medical director of UC's new interventional technology training center.

If the new center is successful, Cincinnati will be involved as robotic surgical systems get dramatically better, as more doctors are trained to use them, and as more patients benefit from faster recovery times and fewer mistakes. The Tristate economy also could benefit from an infusion of new grants and the potential for spin-off business ventures.

"Tim is a key component in this effort," said Dr. Jeffrey Matthews, chairman of surgery at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. "We're also working on recruiting a couple of other experts in robotics and telemedicine . . . Nothing is inked yet, but over the next six to 12 months, few places will rival the talent we have here.''

But first, Broderick has some work to do at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Zero-G experience

On Tuesday, Broderick flew aboard NASA's KC-135 zero-gravity training plane to test simulation systems that will be used to train future astronauts on how to perform surgical procedures in space.

Broderick's work is part of NASA's long-range hopes of sending manned missions to Mars, and could be useful for crews living months at a time aboard the International Space Station.

The military also has continuing interest in remote-control medical technologies as a way to provide expert medical care closer to front-line troops.

In Houston, the zero-gravity plane - nicknamed the "Vomit Comet" - is the closest thing on Earth to actually being in orbit. As the jet maneuvers through a series of roller-coaster-like parabolas, passengers and their equipment become weightless for a string of 25-second periods.

"It's a pretty wild ride," Broderick said.

The flights - which will continue through Friday - will help researchers convert surgical test dummies and virtual reality medical simulation systems for use in space.

The testing is needed because surgery in zero gravity will be different than on Earth. In zero gravity, everything floats, including blood, internal organs and surgical instruments. Mechanical devices - such as surgical robots - that work smoothly on Earth have to be tested to make sure they will work in space.

On Tuesday, Broderick noted that a virtual reality simulator program that was running on a laptop computer during the flight will need to be tweaked to more accurately reflect zero gravity.

For example, when a doctor let go of a "virtual" suture needle, the software program showed the needle floating slowly on the screen as if underwater. But on the plane - or in orbit - real objects actually drift and twirl quite a bit unless they are released carefully, Broderick said.

Space medicine on Earth

Cincinnati has quite a bit of catching up to do in robotic medicine.

Since its first, limited-use approval in 1997, the da Vinci robotic system - one of two leading systems - has been installed at about 130 hospitals in the U.S., Europe and Japan - including at Ohio State University and the Cleveland Clinic. Hospitals in Richmond, Va., are expected to have as many as five robotic systems in service by year's end, Broderick said.

Greater Cincinnati, which includes 28 acute-care hospitals, got its first robotic surgery system in March, when Good Samaritan Hospital acquired a da Vinci system for use primarily in cardiac and prostate surgery.

UC plans to install a da Vinci robotic surgery system this year. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center also has been considering installing a robotic surgery system.

Matthews and Broderick said that UC's telemedicine center will allow Cincinnati to do more than catch up to other communities.

For example, once Broderick moves here, the University of Cincinnati will become a member of NASA's MITAC group. That means local experts will be among the first to learn about, and potentially adopt, improved robotic surgery technology.

"I do robotic surgery in clinical practice. And I can say that the current applications of robotic surgery are not that great. You can do some things well, but the whole field needs to be developed further," Broderick said.

Only now are the fields of robotics, broadband communications and virtual reality computer technology becoming sophisticated enough to make telemedicine more practical, Broderick said. A merger announced in March of the two leading surgical robot makers - Computer Motion Inc. and Intuitive Surgical Inc. - also could advance the field.

"All that intellectual property sits in one company that will be free to move faster on next-generation technology," Broderick said.

While other cities may be further along in robotics, Broderick said coming to Cincinnati made sense because potential research and business partners already are here.

Ethicon-Endo Surgery, a leading maker of minimally invasive surgical tools that are needed for robotic "hands," is based here. Cincinnati Bell has broadband communications expertise - needed for remote-control surgery - that won't vanish with the sale of its Broadwing business.

Meanwhile, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, an important center of military research, is in Dayton. Broderick already is involved with a U.S. Army telemedicine research group. He hopes to work with the Air Force as well.

Space dreams

How long Broderick stays in Cincinnati - or even on this planet - depends on whether he achieves a dream of becoming an astronaut. Beyond helping develop surgical systems that can be used in space - he wants to be a doctor in space.

"From the time of childhood I've had an interest in NASA. I remember watching on TV as the astronauts walked on the moon and saying. 'I've got to do that when I grow up,' " Broderick said. "I still have my (astronaut) application in. But NASA gets 3,000 to 5,000 applications every couple of years."


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