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Robots lend helping 'arm' to surgeons in Mass.

Sunday News Correspondent

April 10. 2016 12:11AM
Londonderry High School senior Logan Ford guides a robotic arm through a model knee replacement surgery on a field trip Friday to Holy Family Hospital. (Eli Okun/Sunday News Correspondent)

METHUEN, Mass. — At Holy Family Hospital on Friday, an arm maneuvered over a knee in need of replacement, made a cut and inserted an implant, placing it within a millimeter of its target to ensure full range of motion.

The arm was attached not to a surgeon but to a robot — a cutting-edge technology that assists doctors with precision and accuracy in replacement surgeries.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Andrew DesRosiers, director of the hospital’s orthopedics and neuroscience service lines. The hospital bought it for more than $1 million in the summer of 2014, the first in Massachusetts. The broader Steward Health Care System has four across the state.

On Friday, the knee in question was just a model, set on an operating table for the benefit of a few dozen visiting Londonderry High School students.

Thomas Hoerner, a Salem, N.H., surgeon, first presented an overview of the knee and knee replacements. He emphasized that the robot doesn’t replace doctors or their work — it plays a critical collaborative role in improving results.

Then Matt Thompson of Stryker, the company that produces the Mako robot, explained that its arm has six joints, and its technology syncs up with screens that display computer models of the knee to doctors as they’re operating.

The robot has applications for partial knee and total hip replacements, as well as total knee replacements coming soon.

A CT scan of the patient’s leg sent to Stryker creates 3-D models of each bone, using coordinate systems, implant models and tracking systems to plan for surgery.

During the procedure, the surgeon guides the robot’s cutting tool manually, but it will stop them if they venture outside the predetermined boundaries.

“The idea is that you get a much more precise cut,” Thompson said.

DesRosiers said it’s a major step forward, amid a general increase in the use of robotics in medicine. “Doing it manually is very tough, so you get failures” sometimes, he said. “This — you don’t get failures.”

For the Londonderry students, many of whom take the school’s pre-engineering courses, the field trip helped substantiate their in-class learning about biomedical engineering and 3-D modeling.

“We’re trying to just promote that engineering is a career path that can lead to good living,” said teacher Kevin Konieczny, who — like many of his students — took a turn at guiding the robot. (“It’s kind of cleaning teeth,” he declared during the dusty operation.)

Junior Tiffany Miller and sophomore Amanda Graf are interested in prosthetics and biomedical engineering, both inspired by loved ones’ personal experiences. They were thrilled by the robotics’ promise and their up-close view.

“It’s fantastic,” Miller said. “Getting to see how technology has evolved is just really cool.”

Graf added, “It’s just really cool to see what I’m interested in actually being applied.”

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