Water jets for finer surgical cuts

Tools powerful enough to sever cables in the North Sea are being redesigned to replace surgical saws in operating theatres, offering greater speed and accuracy than current instruments.

Prof Joe McGeough of the School of Engineering and Electronics at EdinburghUniversity is working on adapting the cutting devices, which use powerful jets of water, to sever human bone and tissue.

Surgical tools have remained virtually unchanged for centuries since they are cheap and relatively easy for surgeons to use. They do, however, present a number of drawbacks that McGeough aims to overcome.

Sawing with a serrated blade can cause heat damage to surrounding tissue, killing otherwise healthy cells and inhibiting healing. It can also produce bone debris, which carries a risk of infection.

It is believed that as there is no physical contact with the patient, water jet tools would minimise trauma, avoid tissue damage and reduce blood loss.

‘It is a relatively cold process as the water is at room temperature,’ said McGeough. ‘I think there is a need to protect bone and tissue from what is called cell death, which occurs when cells are exposed to temperatures above 40º C. So it can cut and not create high temperatures with speed, precision and accuracy.’

With five years of research now complete, and the water jet technology proven to be precise, McGeough said the next stage is to find industrial partners to take the technology forward.

McGeough conducted his research using a filing cabinet-sized machine cutting through pig and sheep bone and flesh, all of which have similar characteristics to human flesh and bone.

‘Normally, engineering from laboratory work is scaling up, but we are scaling down,’ said McGeough.

The university is in the process of approaching medical instrument companies, and McGeough hopes it will be between one and two years before clinical trials proceed.