Virtual reality simulation tools are already revolutionizing the way dentists are taught at Case Western Reserve University - and if M. Cenk Cavusoglu has his way, simulation technology at Case will also train the world's brain and heart surgeons.
"Simulation is a popular training tool because it reduces the learning time and allows students to learn independently," said Cavusoglu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Case School of Engineering.
Prior to joining Case in 2002, Cavusoglu helped to develop sophisticated laparoscopic and endoscopic tools in the Robotics and Intelligent Machine Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. Laparoscopy and endoscopy enable doctors to treat diseased organs and tissue and remove cysts and tumors through tiny rather than major incisions and often with local rather than general anesthesia. The challenge now, he says, is to expand these minimally invasive techniques to complex surgeries, and he intends to close that gap.
Cavusoglu and his colleagues at Case and other institutions nationwide are applying engineering, computer science and biomedical expertise to develop the simulation technology and open architecture software necessary for simulation technology. They also are experimenting with soft tissue models and "haptics" technology to replicate the appearance and functions of the heart and brain, and enable doctors to "feel" when they accomplish procedures correctly.
"Laparoscopy requires a different skill set than open surgery," Cavusoglu explains. "Surgeons typically view patients from the outside in. When a laparoscopic camera is inserted, they see patients from the inside out. Hand/eye coordination is difficult to master. Practice on a simulator would allow surgeons to perfect their technique with no risk to patients."
Another undertaking - Cavusoglu's "robotic beating heart surgery" project - is also advancing surgical science. In a joint program with the University of California at Berkeley funded by the National Science Foundation, Cavusoglu and several Case doctoral students are building a prototype robot that will allow surgeons to routinely perform open surgery on a beating rather than a stopped heart, minimizing risk to the patient. Designed to stabilize and track the heart's motion, the robot would virtually eliminate the need for heart/lung machines, currently used in approximately 80 percent of heart surgeries.
"Traditional coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery has undesirable side effects that range from cognitive loss to increased hospital stays that are believed to be related to artificial heart pumps," Cavusoglu said. "In this project, we believe that if the heart were able to beat freely during surgery, these pumps would not be needed and it is possible that these side effects might be lessened."