IMAGE: Scientists
A team of scientists in the German Aerospace Center (DLR) work in an Airbus A300 during a zero-G flight. A team of French doctors will operate on a human under near-weightless conditions on Wednesday.
updated 9/25/2006 9:12:29 PM ET 2006-09-26T01:12:29

A team of French doctors say they will perform the world’s first zero-gravity surgery Wednesday, operating on a man in an airplane as it arcs and dives in and out of weightlessness.

The experiment by the French National Center for Space Studies, is an effort to develop robotic techniques for future surgeries in space, the doctors said. The surgeons will be strapped to the walls of the aircraft as they remove a cyst from a man’s forearm in a three-hour operation.

The surgery will be performed aboard a modified Airbus A300 designed to perform roller coaster-like maneuvers that simulate weightlessness. It will make about 30 such parabolas during the flight.

The operation, announced Monday by chief surgeon Dominique Martin and the French space agency, is part of a project backed by the European Space Agency that aims to develop earth-guided surgical space robots.

The patient, Philippe Sanchot, was chosen because he is an avid bungee-jumper, and accustomed to dramatic gravitational shifts, said Frederique Albertoni, a spokeswoman for the Bordeaux hospital where Martin works.

Sanchot and the six-member medical team underwent training in zero-gravity machines — much like astronauts use — to prepare for the operation.

Albertoni said the cyst removal operation was chosen because it is relatively simple and involves a local anesthetic.

The doctors say their experience Wednesday could help in the development of robots to perform surgeries in space.

Floating scalpels?
“There are all sorts of interesting dilemmas with surgery in space,” said Dr. Joseph LoCicero, chief of thoracic surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, who is not involved in the project. “Without gravity, things could float around,” he said, referring to blood and surgical instruments.

Image: Airbus A300
Surgeons will be strapped down during a flight on an Airbus A300 while they perform the first zero-gravity surgery.

From a surgeon’s perspective, LoCicero said there would be multiple problems. “We use gravity as an orientation tool, and perceptions would certainly change in space,” he said, adding that the application of force and precise surgical movements could be compromised in a weightless atmosphere.

Martin touted the project as proof of French technological prowess and said it could help make surgery a possibility in space.

“An astronaut aboard the international space station may very well need emergency surgery, to relieve an intra-cranial hematoma for example. At this time, it would not be possible. But quite a simple robot would be sufficient for such an operation,” Martin said in a statement.

Martin and his team became the first doctors to perform microsurgery under zero-gravity conditions earlier this year, mending the artery in a rat’s tail.

NASA has carried out some robotic surgery experiments on animal models at its undersea lab off the coast of Florida, which recreates what life would be like at an orbital outpost.

Martin said Wednesday’s surgery could form the groundwork for remotely managed surgical interventions on a future moon base. In the meantime, Martin hopes his work will help on Earth in the development of tools for telesurgery — remote-controlled distance surgery involving robots.

Already, surgeons use robots in about 300 hospitals worldwide to remove cancerous prostates, repair faulty heart valves and other procedures. But most of those operations are conducted with doctors installed at a console near the patient — not from afar.

While LoCicero said that perfecting surgery in space is unlikely to have large applications for the real world, the experiment is interesting nonetheless. “As with any research effort, there is likely to be spin-off insight,” he said, theorizing that developments in robotic surgery could be refined further for earth-bound use.

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