- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

MERIGNAC, France — A team of French doctors said they successfully operated on a man in near zero-gravity conditions yesterday on a flight looping in the air like a roller coaster to mimic weightlessness.

The five-man team and the patient landed safely at an airport in southwestern France after a three-hour flight, although doctors said the midair surgery to remove a cyst from the man’s arm took only about 10 minutes.

Chief surgeon Dominique Martin said the near zero-gravity operation, the first on a human, was not technically difficult, but was aimed at breaking a barrier in medical expertise.

The experiment is part of a broader effort to develop robots for future operations from a distance — in space or on Earth.

The surgery went “exactly as we had expected,” Dr. Martin told reporters near the Merignac airport, outside Bordeaux. “All the data we collected allow us to think that operating on a human in the conditions of space would not present insurmountable problems.”

The medical team was strapped down to the walls of the Airbus 300 Zero-G plane as it looped up and down in a total of 22 roller coasterlike maneuvers, called parabolas. Each dive, creating conditions close to weightlessness, lasted 22 seconds — and the doctors operated during those intervals only.

The operation, announced Monday by Dr. Martin and the French National Center for Space Studies, is part of a project backed by the European Space Agency that aims to develop Earth-guided surgical space robots.

The patient, Philippe Sanchot, was chosen because he is an avid bungee-jumper, and accustomed to dramatic gravitational shifts, said Frederique Albertoni, a spokeswoman for the Bordeaux hospital where Dr. Martin works.

Mr. Sanchot was given a local anaesthetic.

“I’m just a little tired, but it’s because my head is spinning,” Mr. Sanchot said.

He said the team was very relaxed during the procedure.

“At times, we bantered to one another: ‘Be careful! Don’t twist it,’” Mr. Sanchot said, with a bandage on his right arm. “It was to loosen up the atmosphere.”

Mr. Sanchot and the six-member medical team underwent training in zero-gravity machines — much like astronauts use — to prepare for the operation.

The cyst-removal operation was chosen because it is relatively simple and involves a local anesthetic, Dr. Martin said, adding that the procedure was mainly used as a “feasibility study” for possible surgery in space one day.

Dr. Martin and his team became the first doctors to perform microsurgery under zero-gravity conditions in 2003, mending the artery in a rat’s tail — an operation far more complex than the one yesterday.

NASA has carried out some robotic surgery experiments on animal models at its undersea lab off the coast of Florida, which recreates what life would be like at an orbital outpost.



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