Drones are making emergency medical deliveries and 3-D bioprinters are generating customized body organs, prostheses, medications and more. Surgeons should also prepare the new world of 3-D eyewear in the surgical suite, reports Dr. Mark McKenna.
Vizor 3-D Surgical Eyewear
An Israeli firm has developed an augmented reality headset for surgeons – eyewear called the “Vizor” – which provides greatly enhanced perception of the surgical area. Surgeons will be able to locate their tools in real time, and multiple sensors detect their head movements, according to Augmedics, the company that developed this headwear.
To use this technology in spine surgery, for example, surgeons must place markers on the patient’s body to register the location of the spine, explains Dr. Mark McKenna. If the patient moves while breathing, Vizor will adjust the position of the spine in real time.
The company still needs FDA approval to sell Vizor to hospitals in the U.S., which will likely take a year or two. But 50 spine surgeons have already tried it, and are reportedly “overwhelmed by the technology,” feeling “like they had superhero capabilities.”
While neurosurgeons currently use similar systems, it’s not commonly used in spine surgery. Current systems cost between $200,000 and $500,000, but the Vizor will be competitively priced.
3-D Printing in Surgery
The revolution in 3-D printing is on the forefront of personalized healthcare. The systems can create customized body organs, prostheses and even drugs. Researchers expect this technology to cut healthcare costs by lowering costs of surgical instruments, medical devices, and other health-care products, says Dr. S. Mark McKenna.
What is 3-D printing?
3-D printing, aka additive manufacturing, works by using a digital model to build an object of any size or shape. The object takes shape as successive layers of material are added in one long continuous run.
With this layering capability, the printer can create complex shapes, including the intricate structure of spinal bones or vascular channels in the heart. This is not possible with any other existing technology, explains Dr. Mark McKenna.
This innovation is possible through advances in computer design– and through sophisticated systems that can integrate 3-D technology with standard medical imaging — computerized tomography (CT scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound.
The technology “translates” the images into digital models that can be read by 3-D printers. With 3-D printing, researchers are finding an array of possibilities in bioscience – such as bioprinting living tissues with “biological ink”.
Personalized medications. This 3-D process involves creating a highly porous structure that will load a large dosage of the active compound into a rapidly dissolvable pill. 3-D-printing is able to optimize the drug’s beneficial effects and reduce side effects. The FDA has approved the first 3-D-printed drug—the anti-seizure medication Sprintam, reports Dr. McKenna.
Surgical applications. In Canada, one research group has 3-D-printed a human brain replica from MRI data. This can be used to plan complex neurosurgical procedures involving movement disorders – a procedure that involves implanting electrodes that target tiny structures lying deep inside the brain.
Similar 3-D printed models have already been used to plan complex surgeries like spine surgery and a full-face transplant. More examples: an FDA-approved 3-D implantable surgical device and 3-D-printed titanium bone implant coated with bioactive agents that promote bone growth.
Printing living organs. Bioprinting of living tissue – organs – offers one of the most promising 3-D printing technological advances. Researchers are making strides in manufacturing tissue constructs that could be used in organ transplants, says Dr. McKenna.
Functional human liver and kidney constructs are already available, which will impact medical and drug research. Research is making strides in creating biologically active skeletal muscle and liver tissue that functions in the human body. At some point, use of experimental animals will be reduced by this advance.
Global implications. The biggest impact of 3-D printing lies in producing inexpensive healthcare products – like prostheses for landmine victims – in conflict zones in Africa and Asia. These are customized and printed in one day. In this year alone, 300 prosthetic hands were created for war victims and the disabled poor.
Swiss Hospitals Setting Up Medical Delivery Drones
In Africa, a network of drones is delivering units of blood for transfusions to remote clinics in Rwanda, and will soon deliver other medical supplies such as antimalarial drugs and emergency vaccines in Tanzania.
Now, Switzerland’s hospitals and labs have a permanent set of small drone networks that are even flying near major airports, reports Dr. S. Mark McKenna
This service has life-saving applications, as it can rush biomedical and medical items from a lab directly to a hospital, avoiding traffic snarls inevitable in densely populated cities. A trip that takes 25 minutes by courier could take three minutes in a drone.
If a surgeon needs a tumor biopsy during surgery, that request can be fulfilled by a drone – providing critical details for tissue dissection. If blood units are needed in an emergency, a drone can make that delivery.
Matternet is the Silicon Valley-based tech company that designed the drones, as well as a cloud system of sending and receiving platforms. The complete system will load, launch, and land the drones. The receiving facilities don’t require personnel trained in drone use.
How does it work? Let’s say a tissue sample needs to be sent urgently. The lab technician will use an iPhone app to place a request, then place the sample in a biohazardous material container. The technician will scan a QR code, which initiates loading the container into the ground station outside.
The cloud-based system completes the action: pulling the sample inside, requesting a drone, loading the drone with the tissue sample and a freshly charged battery, and launching on the designated route (generated by the cloud system), explains Dr. S. Mark McKenna. The drone will automatically land at the appropriate hospital station, and notification is sent to hospital personnel. The hospital will store the drone in a secure room.
To operate near a busy international airport, approval was necessary from the military, air traffic authorities, local police and government. An integrated “sense-and-avoid” system prevents crashes. While the drones can operate autonomously, a network of operators monitor their flights from a remote station – to handle emergency landings or send a technician. The drones have been proven to avoid collisions with emergency helicopters at hospitals.