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New Robot Used by California Surgeons - 2002-09-04

Doctors in California are using a new robot that allows a surgeon to sit in his office and operate on a patient in the next room - or in another country.

Doctor Carlos Gracia of the Robotic and Technology Center demonstrates part of the system used in this new surgical device. The visual probe, which sends images of the surgery to the surgeon's computer screen, is called Aesop. "Aesop's not doing anything, but if I say "Aesop" - Aesop. Move back. Move right. Move up. Stop," he explains.

Aesop does just as instructed. Surgeons at UCLA have used the robot to correct a condition called acid reflux, heartburn caused by stomach acid that escapes into to the esophagus. The disorder is commonly treated with medication and changes in diet, but when it is serious, it can require surgery. The robot's thin arms, guided by the surgeon, cut a tiny opening through the upper abdomen to reach the patient's esophagus and correct the problem.

The robot has three arms. The first responds to the doctor's voice and contains a tiny camera. The others are used for cutting and suturing, and the surgeon controls them by hand.

The robot eliminates the minor shaking that afflicts even the steadiest surgeons, permitting smaller incisions and a shorter recovery time than standard surgery. Doctor Gracia says such robots, which are now used in the United States and Europe, are part of the future of his profession. "This is going to be a new way of bringing new procedures to patients, and also a new way of bringing current procedures, which are already complex and difficult for some surgeons to do, to more patients," he said.

Right now, says Doctor Gracia, the surgical robot is too expensive for many hospitals. The model at UCLA costs $1 million. But as with computers and computer chips, the doctor says the price should drop in future. "It is a process in development, but as you've seen with microchips, things are changing every 12 to 18 months," said Dr. Gracia.

UCLA surgeons have so far operated on more than 40 people using the robot. Doctor Joe Hines used it to correct an acid reflux problem in one of his patients. "It helps us to tie sutures and do complex dissections, so I was very happy with how things went," he said.

The surgeons say robotic surgery is now in its infancy, but the technique is evolving with the help of engineers and computer scientists. The doctors predict that robots will one day have a place in most operating rooms. There has already been an example of international surgery using a similar robot. Last year, surgeons in New York removed the gallbladder of a patient in France. But, describing the operation in the journal Nature, they noted that many hospitals lack the broadband optical lines that are needed for the procedure.

The robotic system at UCLA, produced by the California firm Computer Motion, is marketed under the name of the Greek God Zeus. It will have a permanent place in the university's new medical center, which is scheduled to open in 2005.