You’ve heard of minimally invasive surgery – it’s often called laparoscopic surgery. Instead of making a large cut in a patient, and moving tissues and organs that are in the way, doctors make smaller cuts and focus on just the area they need to with the help of a tiny camera.
Cadeddu, a professor of urology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who specializes in robot-assisted laparoscopic surgery, was watching the TV news one day in the late ’90s when a story caught his eye.
“They were talking about kids who would have, instead of piercing of their lips, they would have studs and it was magnetic,” Cadeddu says.
The kids could even move around these fake lip piercings by using their tongues to move the magnets – and Cadeddu says that gave him an idea.
“Oh wow. We can do the same thing in surgery: put a magnet on the outside of the patient and put an instrument of some sort with a magnet on the inside of the patient,” he says. “And then we wouldn’t have to make extra holes; we could just put them inside the patient through one hole and then move everything around with magnets on the outside.”
Right now, most laparoscopic surgeries require at least one or two “extra” cuts to move internal organs that aren’t being repaired during the surgery.
“If you’re doing a gallbladder surgery to move the liver or the intestines, if I do prostate surgery, I need to make an extra hole in a patient just to move the intestines away,” Caddedu says.
So, Cadeddu figured out that he could use magnets to hold these organs out of the way. He worked with a team at UT-Southwestern to make it happen. They found a company to develop the tools, they did years of research and testing, and eventually sought FDA approval. But Cadeddu says the process wasn’t entirely smooth.
“We hit a roadblock, and the FDA, in 2008, was not receptive. So I kind of gave up my plan,” he says.
Then, about five years later, he heard from another company, Levita Magnetics, who had been developing a tool based on the same principle of using magnets. Cadeddu says the FDA ended up approving Levita’s tool instead of his. But because of Cadeddu’s prior work, Levita reached out to him and he’s now working as an unpaid advisor for the company. He’s also one of the first doctors in the country using and evaluating the technology, and he’s doing that at UT-Southwestern. He has mixed feelings about how it all turned out.
“Hopefully you do this for the right reasons, not for any financial gain,” Cadeddu says. “But if there’s any kind of disappointment, I would say there’s also some satisfaction that my idea might have been pretty good 15 years ago …. It just might have been a little bit ahead of his time.”
The other satisfaction for Cadeddu is how the technology benefits patients.
“The less holes, hopefully less risk and less pain,” he says.
So far – he says – so good. But the technology is new; right now it’s only available at UT Southwestern and at one other hospital in the U.S. While Cadeddu says all the research so far has been positive, there could always be risks that have yet to be discovered. Still, he says he’s excited about what’s next.
“One could envision, you know, even making magnetic, robotic-type scissors and other, more advanced technologies. You know, it sounds cliché but, the sky’s the limit,” Cadeddu says.