French Surgeons to Operate in Zero Gravity

A team of French doctors will operate on a man under near-weightless conditions on Wednesday — a world first and what they hope will be a step toward performing surgery in space.

Whizzing above southwest France aboard a specially modified Airbus, strapped-down surgeons will attempt to remove a fatty tumor from the forearm of a volunteer in a three-hour operation.

The Airbus A300 Zero-G, based in Bordeaux, is designed to perform roller coaster-like maneuvers that simulate weightlessness. It will make about 30 such parabolas during the flight.

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Details about the operation were sparse. It was announced Monday by chief surgeon Dominique Martin and the French National Center for Space Studies, or CNES.

The operation is part of a project backed by the European Space Agency that aims to develop Earth-guided surgical space robots. The ESA was not commenting on the operation, deferring all questions to the French agency.

Martin and his team became the first doctors to perform microsurgery under zero-gravity earlier this year, mending a 0.5 mm-wide artery in a rat's tail.

It was unclear how exactly the surgery could be useful in space, or whether there would be any broader medical use for the procedure.

"An astronaut aboard the International Space Station may very well need emergency surgery, to relieve an intra-cranial hematoma for example. At this time, it would not be possible. But quite a simple robot would be sufficient for such an operation," Martin said in a statement.

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

The patient, Philippe Sanchot, and the six-person medical team underwent training in zero-gravity machines, much like those astronauts use, to prepare for the operation.

Albertoni said the cyst removal operation was chosen because it is simple and does not put the patient in danger. It involves a local anesthetic.

The doctors say their experience Wednesday could be applied to the development of surgical space robots, though they will be performing the surgery with their own hands.

"There are all sorts of interesting dilemmas with surgery in space," said Dr. Joseph LoCicero, chief of thoracic surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. "Without gravity, things could float around," LoCicero said, referring to blood, internal organs, and surgical instruments.

While LoCicero said that perfecting surgery in space is unlikely to have large applications for the real world, the experiment is interesting nonetheless.

"As with any research effort, there are likely to be spin-off insights," he said, theorizing that developments in robotic surgery could be refined further for Earth-bound use.

NASA space medicine specialists are aware of the zero-gravity surgery experiment planned in France, said NASA spokesman John Ira Petty in Houston.

NASA never has conducted any surgery experiments on humans in its zero-gravity planes.

The U.S. space agency has, however, carried out some robotic surgery experiments on animal models at its undersea laboratory.

That laboratory, 62 feet (18.9 meters) below the surface off the coast of Florida, recreates what life would be like at an orbital outpost.