Mathematicians at the University of California, Loss Angeles (UCLA) are working on a technology that will enable surgeons to conduct operations on virtual patients on computers, before they carry out the procedure on a patient in reality.
Mathematician Joseph Teran says that virtual operations will allow surgeons to know which errors they may commit, and thus reduce the risk of such errors during actual operations.
"You can fail spectacularly with no consequences when you use a simulator and then learn from your mistakes. If you make errors, you can undo them — just as if you're typing in a Word document and you make a mistake, you undo it. Starting over is a big benefit of the simulation," he said.
"Surgical simulation is coming, there is no question about it. It's a cheaper alternative to cadavers and a safer alternative to patients," he added.
Teran revealed that for making virtual surgery a reality, it would be important to create the three-dimensional digital doubles of patients by scanning them, when they come for a procedure.
He said: "I mean a digital double — you on the computer, including your internal organs. The surgeon first does surgery on the virtual you. With a simulator, a surgeon can practice a procedure tens or hundreds of times. You could have a patient in a small town scanned while a surgeon hundreds or thousands of miles away practices the surgery. The patient then flies out for the surgery. We have to solve mathematical algorithms so what the surgeon does on the computer mimics real life."
It takes about six to nine months to create 3-D doubles of 20 people presently. In future, Teran says, the technique will be fast enough to complete this task in minutes.
"In the future, one person will be able to do it in minutes. It's going to happen, and it will allow surgeons to make fewer mistakes on actual patients. The only limiting factor is the complexity of the geometry involved. We're working on that. Our job as applied mathematicians is to make these technologies increasingly viable," he said.
He thinks that the virtual surgery will particularly be helpful with new kinds of surgeries.
"A virtual surgery cannot be a cartoon. It has to be biologically accurate. A virtual double needs to be really you," said Teran.
He will organize a virtual surgery workshop that will take place at the university from January 7 to 11 as part of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics.