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Robotic Surgeons Answer the Call

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted May 23, 2007

For 54 years, Dennis Murray had definitely beaten the odds. Unlike most people his age, he had never been hospitalized, not even once. Sadly, though, his streak wouldn't last. It ended instead with the news that all of us dread. He had cancer.

And in that frightening moment, Mr. Murray became more than just a patient. He also became a statistic for prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death among American men. It was a day that he'll never forget.

That's because for the estimated 218,890 newly diagnosed cases of prostate cancer each year the outlook can be grim. More than 27,000 men will die from the disease this year alone.

But as sobering as those numbers may be, there is always hope. And in Mr. Murray's case there was much more than that. There was deliverance. His surgeons saved his life.

The amazing part is how they were able to do it. They removed his diseased prostate using a robotic surgeon, aptly named after Leonardo da Vinci.

Called the "Da Vinci Surgical System," the medical robot is the signature product of Intuitive Surgical Inc. (ISRG: NASDAQ), a Sunnyvale, California company founded in 1995.

Along with his doctor, Mr. Murray chose his treatment using the robotic surgeon because unlike traditional prostatectomy that typically requires an 8 to 10 inch incision, the Da Vinci Surgical System is minimally invasive. It requires only five small incisions instead.

That means patients using this approach experience significantly less pain, less blood loss, shorter recovery periods and a much quicker return to normal daily life.

In fact, in Mr. Murray's case, he never even needed to take a Tylenol during his recovery, and he was able to return to work in only four weeks. Traditional surgery requires months of recovery.

Approved by the FDA in 2000, the system transmits the hand and arm movements of the surgeon directly to the machine. These movements are then translated by the machine into actions by its robotic hands that include cutting, clamping and sewing. The surgeon works from the magnified viewfinder on his computer console. His hands never even touch the patient's body.

Such wizardry, of course, has led growing demand for these services, despite the cost of the machines themselves. In fact, in 2006 alone, 35% of the 90,000 prostatectomies in the U.S were performed using Intuitive's robotic assistance. Industry analysts see that figure growing to nearly 50% by the end of this year.

The amazing machine is no one trick pony, either. It can also be used for hysterectomies, delicate heart surgeries, and gastric bypasses, to name just a few of its many applications. It's a huge market that is expected to grow to over $600 million per year, due in part to our aging population.

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In the first quarter of this year, Intuitive Surgical, the dominate player, generated $114.2 million in sales. Its revenues surged 48%, thanks to the massive growth in instruments and accessories sold.

The company's share price surged along with it, gaining nearly 33% since the beginning of the year.

But within this fast-growing marketplace, other companies are working hard to become as cutting-edge and as successful as Intuitive Surgical.

One of them is Hansen Medical (HNSN: NASDAQ). Earlier this month the company received FDA clearance for commercialization of its "Sensei Robotic Catheter System and Artisan Control Catheter."

A new, first-generation robotic system, it allows doctors to manipulate, position and control catheters during electrophysiology procedures for cardiac arrhythmia patients.

Ordinarily, these treatments for patients with abnormal heartbeats are highly complex. The procedures are easier using the robotics because these provide a much more stable environment compared to the manual alternative.

The improved approach, Hansen Medical believes, will allow surgeons to better the procedure, which has often been too difficult or time-consuming using the current manual techniques.

Said company founder and CEO Frederic Moll M.D., "By offering physicians the freedom to extend their reach into areas of the heart through a robotically controlled catheter that offers instinctive and deliberate catheter guidance, we believe we can ultimately help physicians to better perform complex catheter procedures and contribute to the successful diagnosis of life-threatening cardiac diseases."

These new robotic systems are only the beginning of the transformation that is taking place within the medical community. Newer and much smaller robots are now on the horizon. Scientists are also currently working on the development of a new class of bug-sized robots that they hope will one day be able to crawl around within the body, treating tumors, injecting drugs, crimping injured arteries and performing other functions.

One example is the HeartLander. Developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the inch-long robot has been used in animal tests to actually crawl along the outside of the heart, repair damaged tissue and attach a pacemaker.

The device is designed to be inserted into a patient's body through a small incision and is controlled by a physician using a joystick. It propels itself across the heart in a manner not unlike that of an inch worm, using its suction cup "feet."

And these new machines are just beginning to answer the call.

The good news is that for anxious patients everywhere they offer hope for better treatments and faster recovery times. The experiences of patients like Mr. Murray are only the start of a new frontier.

 

By the Way: A company that we discussed here in January has broken out to new highs. Shares of American Superconductor (ASMC: NASDAQ) rallied 16% last week on the news that its new superconductor cables will be used in a $39.3-million project designed to prevent blackouts caused by demand surges in New York City. Shares of the Massachusetts-based company closed above $17.00 on the announcement.

Since we recommended this company to our subscribers in September it has gained over 80%.

Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,

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Steve Christ, Editor

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