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Transatlantic Surgery Done by Remote Control - 2001-09-19

For the first time, doctors have succeeded in removing a gall bladder by remote surgery that electronically spanned the Atlantic Ocean. Physicians in New York successfully performed the operation on a patient in Strasbourg, France. The procedure may offer promising medical advances in the future.

Doctors performed the surgery September 7 in New York. The 68-year-old female patient was located thousands of kilometers away in Strasbourg, France.

A high-speed fiber-optic telecommunications network allowed doctors to communicate instructions to robots, and monitor the procedure using virtually instantaneous television imagery.

At a press conference Wednesday, Doctor Jacques Marescaux, who headed the French surgical team in New York, described the remote surgical procedure as a breakthrough. In the past, he said, surgeons have never been able to operate at distances greater than several hundred kilometers.

The most immediate application, Doctor Marescaux said, may be improving the quality of operations and of surgical training. "That means that a surgeon who has only the experience of less than 10 of these kinds of operations can be helped by a famous team [that] has an experience of a hundred cases," he said. "And that is going to decrease what we call in surgery the learning curve."

For example, Dr. Marescaux said, top surgeons may soon be able to monitor and participate in operations anywhere in the world, using the procedure. Military doctors might also use the procedure to treat soldiers located in remote areas. But so far, Dr. Marescaux said, his team had not considered other concrete applications for the procedure.

Dr. Marescaux's team of Strasbourg-based physicians has spent more than two years perfecting the remote surgical technique. The doctors first tested the procedure to remove gall bladders from pigs.

For now, perhaps the biggest obstacle to remote surgery is money. The trial operation cost about $1 million, an extravagant sum, particularly for hospitals in developing countries. But Dr. Marescaux said the price of remote surgery should drop rapidly as the new techniques are perfected.