French surgeons to operate on human in zero-gravity for first time

A team of French doctors planned to slice a cyst off a man's arm Wednesday in the world's first zero-gravity surgery, operating aboard an airplane soaring and diving in and out of weightlessness.

The experiment is part of a broader effort to develop robots for future surgeries from a distance, in space or on Earth, the doctors said. The surgeons will be strapped to the walls of the Airbus 300 Zero-G for the three-hour operation.

The plane took off Wednesday morning and landed after noon at Institute for Aeronautic Maintenance in Merignac, adjacent to Bordeaux in southwest France, according to Novespace, the agency that operates the plane. It was to make 30 roller coaster-like maneuvers, called parabolas, during the flight.

The operation, announced Monday by chief surgeon Dominique 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 Martin works.

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

Albertoni said the cyst removal operation was chosen because it is relatively simple and involves a local anesthetic.

"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, who is not involved in the project. "Without gravity, things could float around," he said, referring to blood and surgical instruments.

From a surgeon's perspective, LoCicero said the application of force and precise surgical movements could be compromised in a weightless atmosphere.

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

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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