Students from the school of mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds have developed a haptic system that could enable surgeons to keep their sense of touch when doing keyhole surgery.
The system combines a computer-generated environment for virtual surgery with a handheld device that applies pressure to the user's hand. What the user feels depends on how hard they are compressing the virtual tissue. The system allows users to interact with the tissue they are operating on throughout the surgical procedure.
The haptic system could be particularly beneficial to cancer surgeons who feel the tissue they are removing in order to assess its location and to double-check if it is malignant or benign.
David Jayne, professor of surgery at the University of Leeds and a consultant surgeon at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “The haptic system that these students have developed goes a long way to solving one of the main disadvantages of keyhole surgery, namely the ability of the surgeon to feel the structure they are operating on.”
The students tested the system by simulating keyhole surgery on an artificial silicone liver. They gathered measurements from a soft block of silicone to simulate what surgeons would “feel” during keyhole procedures and fed these into their handheld device. The team also conducted tests where they embedded hard ball-bearings into the artificial liver to confirm that users would be able to find them.
Dr Peter Culmer, a senior research fellow at the university, who supervised the students' work, said: “In the short term, it could be used as a training tool to help surgeons get a feel for keyhole surgery – quite literally. Looking further ahead, systems such as this could become used in operating theatres on a daily basis.”
The students did the work as part of their final-year project. The project was selected as one of the top four in a global student design competition run by National Instruments this summer. It was the only entry from Europe to be selected.