remote control health care

Houston surgeon takes part in first-of-its-kind surgery in space

Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis was one of six involved in a remote surgery in space demonstration. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

A small surgical robot at the International Space Station completed its first surgery demo in zero gravity last week, and one of the surgeons tasked with the remote robotic operations on simulated tissue was Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis.

Voloyiannis took part in what is being referred to as “surgery in space” by being one of the six doctors remotely controlling spaceMIRA — Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant — that performed several operations on simulated tissue at the lab located in the space station. The surgeons operated remotely from earth in Lincoln, Nebraska. The remote surgeons worked to control the robot's hands to provide tension to the simulated tissue made of rubber bands. They then used the other hand to dissect the elastic tissue with scissors.

“I said during the procedure ‘it was a small rubber band cut, but a great leap for surgery,’“ Voloyiannis tells InnovationMap. “This was a huge milestone for me personally in my career.”

The robot was developed by Virtual Incision Corporation, and made possible through a partnership between NASA and the University of Nebraska. The team of surgeons took part in a demonstration that is considered a common surgical task, as they dissected the correct piece of tissue under pressure.

Latency is the time delay between when the command is sent and the robot receives it, and that was the big challenge the team faced. The delay was about 0.85 of a second according to what the colorectal surgeon who worked on spaceMIRA Dr. Michael Jobst said to CNN. The demo overall was a success according to the team, and posed a new-found adrenaline rush due to the groundbreaking innovation.

“The excitement of the new and the unknown,” Voloyiannis says on the feeling of doing the first operation of its kind. “I never thought I’d be doing something like this when I was in training and in medical school.”

Voloyiannis serves as the chairman of colon and rectal surgery for The US Oncology Network. He was chosen for this experiment due to his experience and expertise performing robotic colorectal surgery. Voloyiannis and the developers are hopeful that this type of technology will soon allow doctors to perform this specialized robotic surgery on patients living in rural areas without a specialized surgeon nearby, military battlefields, as well as regularly in space one day.

“The same concept of remote surgery regularly in space could certainly be entertained,” Voloyiannis says. “When you do things with an absence of gravity and perform a surgery in that environment — of course that changes the way we do things. When you have an absence of gravity with bodily fluids, it is a very hard surgery, but with partial gravity that idea can be entertained.

"Remotely, internet connectivity would have to be considered and you’d have someone remote like me here, while potentially there you’d have someone with less training doing the procedure there guiding the robot," he continues. "It’s quite the concept though.”

The doctors had to account for nearly a second of delay in connectivity. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

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