Haptic system helps keyhole surgeons

University of Leeds engineering students have found a way to let surgeons keep their sense of touch when carrying out keyhole surgery.

Keyhole surgery, in which surgeons operate through tiny incisions, cuts the chance of complications, shortens hospital stays and speeds up recovery.

But many surgeons like to feel the tissue they are cutting out, as it helps them double-check where the tumour is and decide whether it’s malignant or benign. And the developers of the new system say it should give surgeons that hands-on feeling back. 

The system combines a computer-generated environment for virtual surgery with a hand-held device that applies pressure to the users’ hand. What the user feels depends on how hard the virtual tissue is compressed.

In a simulation, the team gathered measurements from a soft block of silicon to simulate what surgeons would ‘feel’ during keyhole procedures, and then fed these into their hand-held device. They tested the system by embedding hard ball-bearings in the artificial, silicon liver and checking whether users could find them.

“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,” says professor David Jayne, a consultant surgeon at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, who tested the system in the laboratory.

“If this research can be translated into the clinical setting, then it has the potential to offer benefits to surgeons and patients.”