Surgical simulator receives funding

A team of researchers led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has won a $2.3m (£1.5m) grant to develop a touch-sensitive virtual reality simulator that will standardise how surgeons are trained and certified to perform laparoscopic procedures.

The skills needed to perform most minimally invasive laparoscopic operations – including, for example, gallbladder removal and gastric band surgery – can be reduced to a handful of basic tasks: cutting in very specific patterns, tying knots, stitching and manipulating very small items.

The new four-year grant, awarded by the US National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the US National Institutes of Health, tasks Rensselaer Prof Suvranu De and his team of researchers with developing new hardware and software that effectively trains surgeons to perform these fundamental tasks, as well as objectively assessing the performance of physicians who are seeking to become certified in laparoscopic surgery.

The new testing and training system will employ haptic technology, or touch feedback, which realistically replicates the sensation a surgeon would feel in his or her hands during an actual procedure.

The new system will feature real laparoscopic tools, which will be connected to equipment nearly identical to that used in actual surgical situations. Realistic computer-generated models of the simulation scene will be displayed on a monitor and the users will interact with the simulation both visually and using their sense of touch.

The haptics technology ensures that a physician cutting or stitching tissue with the simulator will feel with their hands the lifelike toughness, sponginess and resistance of virtual tissue. By pairing haptics with automation, the simulator will also be able to literally guide the hands of trainees, so they can see and feel the correct movements as they learn specific surgical tasks. The research team also plans to make these simulations available over the internet.

After developing the new system, the research team will work to test and validate the effectiveness and usefulness of the system as a testing and training tool at the Carl J Shapiro Simulation and Skills Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Prof De, an expert in multi-scale computer modelling and haptics, will be assisted by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts University to develop the technology.