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Doctors experiment with using avatars


In Melbourne, a group of surgeons are experimenting with a technology that turns the physical form of their patients into avatars. The doctor then operates upon the patient with unprecedented precision. The aim is to help with spine and brain surgery, where navigational issues make operating difficult, if not impossible in some cases. This technology may result in some inoperable conditions becoming treatable (or at least more treatable than they were).

As you can imagine, surgery is still fairly un-advanced. We are by no means talking about bloodletting or applying leeches, but there are some surgeries that involve no more than feeling around in the goop and snipping. Not since the creation of the CAT scan has surgery integrated an idea of technology into the surgery process. The difference between the CAT scan and avatars is that the CAT scan shows a surgeon where the problem is, but the avatar system shows the doctor the problem and any progress during the actual surgery.

The avatar system, which is also known as a "stealth guidance machine” aims to recreate a patient on a screen which is monitored by a surgeon whilst operating. The patient is scanned by pre-existing scanning technology which is used to help build a three dimensional model of the patients spine or head. The image is matched to the patient whilst the surgery takes place with small infrared cameras. Important structures such as bones and nerves are visible on the model, and the surgeon is able to match the position of his/her instrument with these important structures.

The first problem with the system would be nerves and blood vessels are in such an intricate mesh that even a slight movement of the head or spine during surgery would throw off the accuracy of the avatar--with potential devastating results. The technicians involved with the system say that a surgeon can move the patient as much as needed, and the avatar will switch position to compensate. There is even a system that recommends which angles to enter the brain and spinal column. It may also recommend the angle of any cut, which would have otherwise been blind slicing if it were not for the avatar system.

Inoperable tumors and inoperable conditions are usually called such because the operation itself would potentially cause too much damage to be applicable. Imagine if you needed to take a sesame seed from the middle of a walnut, you could not do it without cutting through the walnut. However on some occasions, a problem is in a slightly more accessible part of the brain, but finding it would involve a hit or miss cutting technique. The avatar technology removes any guesswork, which means a surgeon can cut and drill into certain areas and only cause minimal damage. In essence a surgeon can find a safe route to the problem so as to cause the least amount of damage during its correction. The risk of cutting vital structures is reduced, but also things such as leaving parts of a tumor within the brain or spinal column is reduced. This is also true of spreading cancerous cells through their inadequate (dirty) removal.

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