“I see the disks below and the nerves above them and fat tissues around them.” At 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Dr. Shin Dong-a, a professor of neurosurgery at Severance Hospital in western Seoul, said so, while inserting a catheter, a thin medical tube, into the waist of a human body for cadaver dissection.
However, Shin was not at the dissection table where the body was laid but was sitting on a chair about three meters away, watching a video screen. Instead, he was holding a pen-like tool connected to a briefcase-sized apparatus. As Shin pushed forward the tool, the catheter on the dissection table moved forward. When he moved the tool’s tip down to the left, the catheter turned to the same direction. The monitor showed clear images of the disks inside the body. “I feel as if I was playing a video game,” the doctor said.
The equipment, a remote controlled robot system for endosurgery, is dubbed “Dr. Heo Jun.” It was jointly developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), Severance Hospital, Korea University of Technology and Education, and robot and medical device manufacturers after five years of research. The research team conducted their first test of the surgery robot on an actual human corpse on Wednesday.
“We verified the safety and performances by conducting clinical tests on pigs – once in 2016 and twice in 2017,” said Kang Sung-chul, who heads of the KIST’s medical robot research team. “We are doing a final experiment on a human corpse.”
The catheter developed by the researchers is as thin as 3 millimeters in diameter but is equipped with a high-performance underwater camera at its tip. “The underwater camera’s angle of view is 140 degrees, twice as wide as existing ones,” said Shin In-seop, an official at Inji, a semiconductor company that was involved in the camera’s development. In fact, the monitor showed bright images of not only the surgery area but also the surrounding areas.
Clad in a surgery gown, Kim Chun-woo, a senior researcher at the KIST, mounted a tiny surgical tweezer. He operated the tweeter to cut out the affected area at once. “If the affected area is opened 2 to 3 millimeters, we can perform a surgery with the catheter inserted,” Kang said. “We plan to make the catheter thinner so that it can be used in surgeries of eyes, brains, ears, nose or throats.”