French doctors carried out the world’s first ever operation on a human in zero gravity on Wednesday, using a specially adapted aircraft to simulate conditions in space. During a 3-hour flight from Bordeaux in southwest France, the team of surgeons and anaesthetists successfully removed a benign tumour from the forearm of a 46-year-old volunteer. The experiment was part of a programme backed by the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop techniques for performing robotic surgery aboard the International Space Station or at a future Moon base. “We weren’t trying to perform technical feats but to carry out a feasibility test,” said team leader Dominique Martin after the flight. “Now we know that a human being can be operated on in space without too many difficulties.”
The custom-designed Airbus 300 aircraft – dubbed Zero-G – performed a series of parabolic swoops, creating about 20 seconds of weightlessness at the top of each curve. The process was repeated 32 times. Strapped inside a custom-made operating block, three surgeons and two anaesthetists worked during these brief bursts, using magnets to hold their instruments in place around the patient’s stretcher. The patient, Philippe Sanchot, told reporters the operation was “really no big deal”, although he said he was lifted “two or three centimetres” off the operating table each time zero gravity kicked in. “There were no surprises because we had rehearsed this over and over.” Martin said the experiment had confirmed that their equipment was suitable for use on board the International Space Station. “Operating in space is not going to pose a problem – except perhaps for vascular surgery,” he said. “We deliberately chose an operation that could be interrupted and where there was no large-scale bleeding, because it only involved surface tissues.” “If we’d had two hours of zero gravity at a stretch, we could have removed an appendix,” Martin said.
A similar experiment was carried out in October 2003 but the operation then was to mend a 0.5-millimetre-wide artery in a rat’s tail. The next phase of the programme is to carry out a remote-controlled operation using a robot whose commands are sent from the ground via satellite. This experiment should take place within a year, Martin said. Anaesthetist Laurent de Coninck said that zero-gravity surgery offered huge promise for space exploration, although at first it would be limited to treating simple injuries. World space agencies hope that by 2020 a permanently inhabited base can be established on the Moon to conduct research, exploit lunar resources and learn to live off the lunar land. Such a base would also test technologies for voyages to Mars.
October 10, 2006
Original web page at New Scientist