Virtual reality technology, over recent years, has improved in leaps and bounds. Technical difficulties and a prohibitively high price tag have kept it largely under the radar in terms of usable technology, but the tide seems to be turning.

[Artherosclerosis illustration]Share on Pinterest
Virtual reality was used to insert a stent into a cardiac artery for the first time.

Although certain medical specialities already use Virtual reality (VR) as a training tool, the technology is largely kept out of the operating room.

However, a recent groundbreaking operation might signal the start of VR’s increased use within cardiac surgery.

A report published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology describes a first-in-man procedure using VR and Google Glass technology.

A team of cardiologists from the Institute of Cardiology in Warsaw, Poland, carried out a procedure to reopen a chronically blocked right coronary artery.

The VR procedure was undertaken to fix a chronic total occlusion.

This type of operation is often referred to as the “final frontier in interventional cardiology” because of its unpredictable success rates and the associated difficulties in visualizing the occluded coronary arteries with current technology.

Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) is conducted for patients when coronary arteries have become dangerously narrowed. A catheter with a small balloon attached to the end is inserted into the troubled region through either the arm or groin.

The balloon, guided by real-time X-Ray images, is maneuvered into the troubled region. The surgeon inflates the balloon, reopening the artery. As the balloon is removed, a stent – made of stainless steel mesh – is left in place to permanently hold the blood vessel open.

The operation presents a major challenge for the surgeon. PCI in cases of chronic total occlusion is difficult because of reduced visualization of the affected area using conventional coronary angiography radiology methods.

Coronary computed tomography angiography (CTA) is a non-invasive way of imaging the coronary arteries using powerful X-rays. In the case of chronic total occlusion operations, CTA is increasingly utilized to provide surgeons with guidance when performing PCI.

The enhanced imaging and 3D capabilities of CTA can be literal lifesavers. However, economic and technical factors currently prevent its common usage.

The cardiologists were able to carry out this groundbreaking operation in a 49-year-old male using CTA projections within a wearable VR device based on Google Glass, with an optical head-mounted display.

Lead investigator Dr. Maksymilian P. Opolski says:

This case demonstrates the novel application of wearable devices for display of CTA data sets in the catheterization laboratory that can be used for better planning and guidance of interventional procedures, and provides proof of concept that wearable devices can improve operator comfort and procedure efficiency in interventional cardiology.”

The technology, designed by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Mathematical and Computational Modeling of the University of Warsaw, also included a hands-free voice recognition system and a zoom function.

Branded a complete success, the procedure included the implantation of two drug-eluting stents (stents that slowly release a drug to block cell proliferation).

This use of VR technology is likely to be the first of many such procedures in the years to come. Any technology that can significantly improve a patient’s chance of survival is likely to be well funded and thoroughly investigated.

Dr. Opolski is optimistic about the future advancements of wearable VR technology in the operating room:

We believe wearable computers have a great potential to optimize percutaneous revascularization, and thus favorably affect interventional cardiologists in their daily clinical activities.”

The combined expense of VR technology and CTA currently limits their viability within the health care sector at large. But, as with all technology, prices are sure to slowly reduce, eventually making them available to a wider audience.

Medical News Today recently reported on how VR might be useful in the rehabilitation of stroke patients.