Birmingham School of Dentistry in ground-breaking £6.1 million project to develop robot-assisted surgery

BHP founder member the University of Birmingham will be part of a £6.1 million research project aimed at finding new ways to use ultrasonic tools for complex robot-assisted surgery.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has granted the funding for the ‘Surgery enabled by ultrasonics’ project which will be led by the University of Glasgow and will be carried out over the next five years in collaboration with the Universities of Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Southampton.  They will work together to take advantage of the opportunities offered by ultrasonic technologies to ensure they are widely adopted for surgery.

Ultrasonic tools are already in use in surgery, but their full potential has still to be realised. The researchers will develop miniaturised ultrasonic tools relying on different principles to excite the surgical tip. Miniaturisation is possible because of new dynamic structures for the tips and emerging piezocrystal materials with much higher energy density.

The devices will be delivered deep into the human body by the tentacles of new surgical robots. This will enable minimally-invasive surgeries, offering high precision, low force, low temperature and better preservation of delicate tissue structures.  Ultimately, this will allow more procedures to be carried out in out-patient clinics or with day surgery.

A team of scientists and clinicians from the University of Birmingham’s School of Dentistry, including Professor Damien Walmsley, Dr Ben Scheven, Professor Paul Cooper and Dr Richard Shelton, will research the way high power ultrasonics interacts with human tissues.

Professor Walmsley said: “This is a true interdisciplinary project bringing engineers, dentists, surgeons, robotics, cell biologists and solid mechanics together from five UK universities.

“Using our knowledge of cell and tissue responses, our expertise will be crucial in the development of revolutionary new ultrasonic tools for the cutting of bone. In the speciality of dentistry we predict that this will lead to new tools for use in implant surgery.”

Margaret Lucas, Professor of Ultrasonics at the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering and principal investigator on the project, said: “Many benefits will be delivered from new forms of ultrasonic tools. Traditional tools require surgeons to use high forces to cut through bone, for example, where an ultrasonic tool can be tuned to produce an effortless cut.

“That tuning process also ensures that the ultrasonic device can be tissue selective, able to cut through one tissue without damage to others.

“Currently, ultrasonic surgical devices suffer from a lack of understanding of the beneficial and damaging effects of high power ultrasonic vibrations interacting with tissue. My interdisciplinary research team of Engineers and Clinicians will overcome this by relating cell and tissue responses to the motion of ultrasound via ultra-high-speed imaging. The new understanding will aid the design of revolutionary new tools.”

The researchers will produce miniaturised ultrasonic tools alongside tentacle-like robots to reach inside the human body. Combined with research on the effects of ultrasound on human tissue, instruments will be produced to perform complex procedures more quickly, effectively, and safely.

Pictured L-R: Professor Paul Cooper, Dr Richard Shelton, Dr Ben Scheven, and Professor Damien Walmsley