Oceans apart, but surgery succeeds

In early September, a French group performed the first transatlantic operation. Surgeons in New York controlled a robot in Strasbourg, France, which removed a woman’s gall bladder. There were two surgeons near the patient standing by.

Robotic surgery is used in more than 100 hospitals around the world. The technology filters out a surgeon’s hand tremors, and it also can scale down the surgeon’s motions, enabling more precise procedures. Jacques Marescaux, a surgeon with the Institute for Research into Cancer of the Digestive System in Strasbourg, conducted the operation from New York.

This is the first time surgery has been done from such a distance, he says. Most researchers believed that the time delay caused by taking the video images of the procedure, compressing them into digital form, sending them overseas via optical fibers, and decoding them on the other end would impair a surgeon’s ability to manipulate the robot.

Engineers from France Telecom and the California-based company Computer Motion speeded the compression of the data so that the time delay on a dedicated fiber optic cable for the 4,000-mile round trip was only 155 milliseconds. “It was impossible for me in New York to see any delay between sending an order and watching the robot respond,” Marescaux says.

The woman was discharged uneventfully 2 days later. The results were reported in the Sept. 27 Nature. Although right now the procedure is costly and experimental, Marescaux says, “it raises the possibility that any expert anywhere in the world could feasibly take part in any operation.”

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