It was once the province of science fiction: robotic machines coolly assisting human doctors in delicate surgical procedures. Today, science fiction has become science fact, in a fast-growing field called biomedical engineering.
It's one of the degree programs offered at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where students work with local hospitals and surgeons to learn the skills they need to develop the next generation of biomedical devices.
Advances in medical technology don't just happen. Neurosurgeon James Burgess at Allegheny Community Hospital believes inspiration comes first. That is why he created a course called 'Surgery for Engineers' that takes the Carnegie Mellon University students on field trips into operating rooms around Pittsburgh. "Its purpose," Burgess explains, "is to introduce student engineers to real-life clinical situations, (to) develop relationships between the students and clinicians, and to explore those areas of technology that... these students have never seen."
During the four-month semester, the students watch surgeons at work. In three-hour sessions each week, they observe operations that depend on robotic tools and computer devices developed by engineers.
On this evening at Veterans Hospital, the students zip into disposable white surgical gowns, blue booties and hairnets for a robotics lesson on the "Intuitive Surgical da Vinci System."
Dr. Marco Zenati routinely uses da Vinci for heart bypass surgery. Tonight he operates in one of the surgical suites, but not on a real patient. He has inserted a pig's liver into the simulated chest of a plastic skeleton. He says between the hand of a surgeon and the tip of the instrument now there is a computer chip. "This gives the surgeon superhuman abilities."
Dr. Zenati's hands never touch the "patient." Seated at a large console with hand and foot controls, he manipulates robotic arms that carry a tiny camera and surgical instruments. Slowly they are moved into pin-size holes in the mannequin's chest.
Dr. Zenati says da Vinci gives him greater surgical flexibility. It eliminates hand tremors and allows for more precise movements. The 3-D images he sees through the binocular-like lenses are magnified by an order of 10. "It's scary in a sense, but once immersed in the field with your hands on a joy stick, it becomes a virtual reality."
Students take turns in a seat at the box-like console, which operates much like a video game. But James Burgess says this is serious business. The hands-on experience invites the student engineers to think like surgeons, he explains. "The idea is to get the students early on in their training, involved in this, get them excited about these technologies and perhaps engender some technology projects beyond the course."
Mechanical engineering graduate students Michael Despenza and Frank Hammond plan to do just that. They see themselves as an integral part of a biomedical team of the future. Despenza says mechanical engineers can do some amazing things in the operating room, but that "It also takes a skilled surgeon and his technicians and aids."
Frank Hammond says there has to be a meeting of the minds between engineers and doctors. "Engineers have to put forth their ideas and their instruments and allow the doctors to test them and give them good feedback," Hammond observes. "A lot of times medical professionals and engineers don't see eye to eye. I think there needs to be a lot of collaboration in order for these systems to work effectively and be cost effective."
Michael Despenza nods his head in agreement. "Everybody has his or her expertise," he says, "And maybe if we all work together, we can heal the world."