New technology is being developed at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation in Washington.
A children’s research hospital in Washington DC, established through a US$150 million (Dh551m) gift from Abu Dhabi, has made a series of breakthroughs including ultrasound technology that can “melt away” tumours.
The Sheikh Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation, named after the founding President, is also researching automated operations and three-dimensional printouts of body tissue.
The institute has a challenging mission to make paediatric treatment more precise, less invasive and free from pain.
Preparation is under way for trials of the ultrasound-based technology, which is typically used for imaging and diagnosis.
“We are planning to conduct the first clinical trials in the world, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in applying this technology to children,” said Dr Peter Kim, the institute’s vice president.
“People normally use it to make a diagnosis but if you alter the frequency, you can focus on an area where you can raise the temperature and melt away these focused areas.
“So imagine, you can actually melt the tumour away without having to make the incision.”
The technology, called high-intensity focused ultrasound, has been used in adults, but this will be the first time it has been tried on children.
It will be especially useful for youngsters with bone tumours, which can cause tremendous pain, said Dr Kevin Cleary, the technical director of bioengineering at the institute.
“It would truly be not only minimally invasive, you might almost say a non-invasive treatment right there,” he said.
Another technology in the works is the use of a magnetic-resonance (MR) compatible robot to find and test lesions, which could possibly replace CT scans.
“If you see a suspicious lesion in an MR image and you need a biopsy, right now it would be done under CT scanning or something that produces a lot of radiation,” Dr Cleary said.
“The doctor would identify the area of interest on a CT scan, put in the needle a little bit, then he’ll go back and get another CT scan and repeat, in a process called advance and check. So what happens is you get multiple CT exposure.”
MR robotic devices would not only help to reduce the discomfort, but also eliminate the exposure to dangerous radiation.
“The robotic devices can sit inside the MR scanner and orient a needle to automatically do the biopsy,” Dr Cleary said.
The institute received a grant from the NIH for this project as well, he said.
The institute is also using robotics to automate parts of surgery.
“In other words, you can potentially programme a surgeon’s techniques into those robots and have expert surgeons simply supervise them,” Dr Kim said.
“What that really means is that these techniques can be available to anybody in the world and, at the same time, because it’s standardised and done in a consistent way, will make the procedure safe.”
Researchers are also looking at expanding use of three-dimensional printing technology. The hospital uses it to make 3D models of hearts for complex cases.
Doctors use medical images to send instructions to the printer, which produces a 3D model of the heart specific to the patient’s anatomy.
This helps surgeons decide on the best approach for surgery.
But experts said the possibilities of using this technology were endless. Not only has it been used to develop paediatric surgical tools within the hospital, but research is under way with the University of Maryland to print biologically compatible tissue.
This could be used, for example, when children with congenital heart problems require an artery stent, a mesh tube that is inserted to aid blood flow.
“This is typically not a biocompatible material right now, and if the child is small and the child grows at some point you have to take out that stent then put in another one, which is a painful process and requires a second operation,” Dr Cleary said.
“Whereas if you had a biologically compatible stent, you could put that in and that would be absorbed into the tissue wall and there would be no need for a second operation.
“It would grow naturally with the child. That’s the promise of that technology.”
It could even go so far as printing artificial organs that could be implanted in the body, doctors said.
How soon this could be accomplished is unknown, but doctors said the concept was no longer just wishful thinking.
“I certainly think it’ll be within our lifetime,” Dr Cleary said.
“I don’t think this is science fiction any more. I think these things are a reality and will move into clinical practice within the foreseeable future.”