Ireland’s first digital surgery unit ‘will reduce complications’

Mater hospital unit uses technology to identify cancer without need to remove tissue

The Mater hospital has begun using cutting-edge technology that it says will “significantly reduce” serious complications associated with colorectal surgery.

Ireland’s first digital surgery unit was officially opened at the Dublin hospital on Tuesday. The unit uses a mix of colour-changing dye and infrared imaging to identify cancerous abnormalities without having to remove the tissue from the body. The dye changes colour depending on whether the tissue is malignant or benign and then the digital computer analyses the results. This will allow surgeons to act faster, make decisions more confidently and increase precision when it comes to removing abnormalities, the hospital said.

Prof Ronan Cahill, the colorectal surgeon spearheading the research, said it would allow medics to make decisions that are personalised to the needs of the patient.

“If we give a simple, safe dye, for instance, we can look to see colour changes that reflect the nature of their qualities,” Prof Cahill said. “We are using computer vision to convert human vision into a numeric score and then the numeric scores can be analysed statistically to spot differences that would be very hard to otherwise see.


“That’s really what digital surgery is allowing us to do, to personalise the decisions for that specific person,” he added.

Improved safety

Prof Cahill said the technology has already seen post-operative complications being reduced from 10 per cent of patients to 3 per cent.

“We’re talking about a very invasive, difficult operation for patients to go through because the bowel is unique in that it’s full of bacteria, so any problem with the healing of the bowel after surgery means bacteria can leak into the person’s system and you can get very severe problems,” the surgeon said. “By using those dyes and by using the infrared analysis, we have improved the safety of the operation by two-thirds.”

Colorectal cancer is the second most common in the State. More than 2,700 people are diagnosed with the condition every year.

Researchers will also study how the technology can be used in other fields such as liver and lung cancer surgery, as well as plastic and reconstructive surgery.

The research has received €5.7 million in a Government grant from the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund, as well as a further €2 million from the industry. The grants will fund three years of research.

The research team is comprised of collaborators from the Mater hospital, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and IBM Research Ireland, a research laboratory.

Dr Pól McAonghusa, senior manager at IBM Research Ireland, said it was a very “exciting partnership”.

“This joint research programme is an important first step towards integrating advances in artificial intelligence into surgery,” Dr McAonghusa said. “I am especially pleased that the unique expertise to do this is coming together here in Ireland.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times