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Each year surgeons make a hole in the base of the skull for more than 100,000 people worldwide, for example to treat an infection or cancer, or to place a cochlear implant, a hearing implant. This is a delicate task, because they come across quite a few structures that they certainly must not touch, such as the facial and the taste nerve, the inner ear and the balance organ. In addition, bone filings and blood impedes vision through the microscope during the procedure.
At the request of ENT doctor and skull base surgeon Dirk Kunst of the Radboud UMC in Nijmegen, Jordan Bos developed a robot to take over at least part of these kinds of operations. The robot, called RoBoSculpt, works on the basis of precise instructions from the surgeon who accurately indicates which piece of bone the robot has to remove on CT images of the patient’s skull. The robot is in fact a very advanced arm, which holds an existing surgical drilling tool. Before the operation, the head is accurately fixed in position and then the robot mills the desired cavity.
The robot is actually an advanced computer-controlled milling machine, or a CNC milling machine, with seven axes of motion to enable all possible angles. Despite the high number of axes, the device is very accurate, thanks to the compactness, the high level of stiffness, the low weight and the minimal backlash on the axes. The robot can also be covered with a sterile cover, which is important in the operating room. Skull base surgeon Dirk Kunst, who acted as co-supervisor for Bos, is enthusiastic about the robot. “This is an important step towards the operating room of the future. RoBoSculpt is an optimal collaboration between the surgeon and the machine; they really complement each other to achieve the best results for the patient.”
The first pre-clinical tests with the robot will therefore also start this year, at the Radboud UMC. The first operation on people could take place in two to three years. A possible first step in the introduction is that the robot does the preparatory work, and the surgeon himself the crucial final part, in order to gain experience safely with the robot. The company Eindhoven Medical Robotics plans to commercialize the technology, in a partnership with TU/e.
A robot that is pre-programmed to perform a surgical procedure is a new development. Nevertheless, Bos does not think that robots will be able to carry out all sorts of other operations in the short term.