'Weightless' surgery performed for first time

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The Independent Online

A team of doctors have carried out the world's first "weightless" surgical operation in an aircraft diving steeply thousands of feet above France.

The simple operation - the removal of a small tumour from the arm of a volunteer - was intended to prove that surgery could be used in space stations or long-distance space flights. In the long term, the project, supported by the European Space Agency, aims to develop "robot surgeons" to carry out more complex medical operations in space, guided from Earth.

Yesterday's operation was carried out in an A-300 Airbus, which climbed and dived sharply on 25 occasions to create brief periods of weightlessness in the cabin. The surgeon in charge, Professor Dominique Martin, of Bordeaux University hospital, said that the tumour had been removed "without any particular problem" in less than 10 minutes. "This was not a technical stunt but a feasibility test," said Professor Martin. "We now know that a human being can be operated on in space without too much problem."

The patient, Philippe Sanchot, 46, volunteered to be the first person to go under a "weightless" surgical knife. He was given a local anaesthetic before the flight and was said later to be "doing fine". M. Sanchot was chosen because he is an experienced bungee jumper, used to sudden changes in body gravity.

Professor Martin and five other surgeons and anaesthetists had received weightlessness training. The team were strapped to the walls of the aircraft during the operation and used equipment fitted with magnets to fix it to the metal operating table.

The specially converted Airbus took off from Bordeaux-Merignac airport yesterday morning and returned three hours later. During its flight, it performed 25 steep climbs and dives to create 22-second periods which resembled the zero gravity, or weightless, conditions experienced by astronauts in space. The surgeons operated only during those periods.

"If we had had two hours of weightlessness we could have removed an appendix," Professor Martin said.

The team hopes to go on next year to the next phase: conducting a simple operation in weightless conditions through a robot controlled from Earth. The aim is to develop ways of dealing with possible medical emergencies which might arise in space stations, moon bases or on lengthy, manned space flights. The operation went "exactly as we had expected," said Professor Martin.

"All the data we collected allows us to think that operating on a human in the conditions of space would not present insurmountable problems."

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