Robust cutting technology designed to withstand the rigours of the North Sea could soon be adapted to perform delicate surgery, thanks to engineers at the University of Edinburgh.
Tools which can sever undersea cables using powerful jets of water are being redesigned to cut human bone and tissue in hospital operating theatres. Trials suggest that a new generation of surgical water jet tools could offer greater speed and accuracy than existing medical instruments.
Surgical cutting tools have changed surprisingly little since medieval times, but they are inexpensive, manoeuvrable and popular with surgeons. They do, however, have drawbacks which water jet tools could overcome.
Sawing with a serrated blade can, for example, cause heat damage to surrounding tissue, killing otherwise healthy cells and inhibiting healing. Procedures using these instruments can also produce a lot of bone debris and carry a risk of infection. Additionally, the tools have a limited lifespan and sometimes lack adaptability.
Water jet tools would minimise trauma to surrounding tissue and reduce blood loss because there is no physical contact with the patient. They would also make cleaner cuts and offer greater precision which would reduce operating times.
Researchers now hope to overcome some of the disadvantages, which include excessive noise and water splash back. They also want to scale down the tools for theatre use and make them operable at lower water pressures. A detailed feasibility study, seeking the views of surgeons, will be carried out in due course.
“This type of technology has been used for about 25 years in the North Sea, where the speed and accuracy is desirable because divers’ time is so expensive,” explained Professor Joe McGeough, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering and Electronics.
“Now it could offer real benefits in the medical field. By speaking to a number of surgeons, I became aware of the difficulties associated with conventional cutting tools used in theatre, even though surgeons are, for the most part, happy using them.
“We are keen to develop a high pressure water jet scalpel which offers flexibility, and is quick and comfortable for a surgeon to use.”