First automatic pilots, and now automatic surgeons? The doctors and engineers who work in the Innovation Center Computer Assisted Surgery (ICCAS) at the University of Leipzig have a clear vision: they want to develop a “surgical cockpit” that will control all procedures carried out in the operating theatre. In future, surgeons could be assisted by technology in a similar way to pilots flying planes. The aim is to develop a central computer-controlled unit that supports the doctor and patient throughout the entire treatment process – from diagnosis through the suggested options for treatment to the operation itself.

Targeted support for doctors

Sandra von Sachsen is an IT expert. The ICCAS scientist is standing in the ultra-modern demonstration operating room. A clear blue light shines down from the ceiling and a torso with exposed cervical vertebrae lies on the operating table. The 36-year-old scientist is currently conducting research into medical conditions that affect the neck and upper spine, such as those caused by slipped discs. She and her team aim to develop a computer model that can identify and categorise the most common defects of the upper spinal column. “Think of it as an algorithm that is capable of translating computer or MRI scanner images into a diagnosis,” she explains. The model is intended to help doctors make an accurate, fast diagnosis in future. “The model won’t replace the doctor, of course, because software will never be able to simulate that experience and knowledge,” says von Sachsen.

Expanding the limits of human motor functions

“Since the ICCAS was established nine years ago, our mission has been to find even better ways of using computer technology to support doctors,” says Professor Jürgen Meixensberger, neurosurgeon and director of ICCAS. “We want to use computers to analyse and present individual patient data, such as laboratory results, CT scans and MRT images,” continues Meixensberger, who is originally from Franconia. “We call it the patient model.” It also includes Sandra von Sachsen’s project. In addition, the researchers are seeking to expand the limits of human motor functions using assistance systems to help surgeons find the best ways of entering the body during operations, using options in head and neck surgery previously considered too risky, for example.

Research that tackles real problems

The scientists at ICCAS are developing internationally uniform technical standards which will enable different surgical instruments to be controlled from a central point in the future. Jürgen Meixensberger says: “What makes ICCAS special is that we deal with real questions and issues that come directly from hospitals. That’s one of our strengths and it’s an important factor for our success.” ICCAS was established by the German Federal Government in 2005. The State Government of Saxony and the University of Leipzig have also supported the facility right from the start. Over the past nine years, ICCAS has become an internationally renowned research institution. Two successful spin-off companies have also been set up: Phacon GmbH, which develops surgical training models, and SWAN GmbH, a company that analyses and optimises workflows in the healthcare sector. Some 50 jobs in total have been created, primarily for young scientists.