Stories#054 Christoff’s surgical robotics technology

#054 Christoff’s surgical robotics technology

The story of Tanya’s plea for spotlights is a story of Christoff’s surgical robotics technology

Tanya Bondarouk, expert in human resource management, believes that we should truly recognise each individual’s contribution to improving UT as a work place, besides their academic output. Christoff Heunis spends his days researching and commercialising “employees” that don’t require special recognition: surgical robots. To lower the risks for patients undergoing surgery. And to improve doctors’ work lives. ‘The most important aspect of my work is integrating robots in the OR. For example, to reduce the workload of the surgeon.’

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Monday 1 November 2021

A personal journey with robots and phantoms

Tanya: ‘I read that you are working on surgical robots. I immediately picture human-like creatures that cut open bodies.’

Christoff: ‘Everybody imagines crazy robot arms that swing knives around. And that’s pretty accurate. However, the robots I work on assist surgeons. They can hold tools, work with the surgeon on an intervention, and eventually make incisions or insert needles on their own.’

Tanya: ‘Right, and you design and develop them?’

Christoff: ‘Well, you may know robot arms from car factories. I use the same technology for different applications. I mostly design tools that I attach to these robot arms. The most important aspect of my work is integrating robots in the OR. Is that even clinically feasible? And do surgeons actually need them?’

Tanya: ‘So did you actually observe real-life interventions with real patients?’

Christoff: ‘Yes, and to be honest, that was quite frightening. Everyone watches shows like Grey’s Anatomy or Dr. House. But actually being there in the room, watching the real scenario unfold before your eyes, is pretty daunting. At the same time, it allowed me to think about why I am doing what I am doing. I was looking for ways to improve the OR with technology. By reducing surgeons’ workloads for example.’

Tanya: ‘Interesting. I will also do a research project on workload at the hospital. I will shadow two doctors 24/7 for a week to find out what they get on their plate. My research projects usually focus on how people use technology from an HRM point of view. The main question I ask is: if engineers tell us paradise is just one mouse-click away, how come we don’t live in paradise yet?’

Christoff: ‘There’s quite a big gap between surgeons and engineers. Surgeons don’t always have a good image of what a piece of technology can do. Or why it exists in the first place. Vice versa, a lot of engineers have no idea of anatomy or whether working with their solutions in the OR is feasible. Bridging the gap between these fields is one of my biggest motivations.’

Tanya: ‘How did you fall in love with surgical robots?’

Christoff: ‘I have had family members and a close friend’s mother who struggled with heart diseases. My grandparents both passed away after a stroke. That motivated me to work on ways to improve treatments. Of course, you can say: why treat a preventable disease, but that’s a different question. If a patient does have to undergo treatment, how can we perfect it? I couldn’t just go and do any job, while people around me suffer from various diseases and I might be able to do something about it.’

Tanya: ‘You sound so passionate about this. Can you recall a specific moment when you thought: I can contribute something here?’

Christoff: ‘I was present during part of a ten-hour intervention on a female patient with peripheral artery disease. The team almost lost the patient because of the blood loss. The surgeon explained that they had struggled inserting a stent. It had to make a turn from the main artery into a branch at a ninety-degree angle.’

‘So, I started thinking of a solution. I imagined something capable of inducing a force and bending the stent into the angle. From then on, my PhD-research revolved around a robot arm with a magnet. Imagine a catheter inside a blood vessel with a magnet on the tip. You can use another magnet, outside the body, to move the catheter around and to enter branches that are too complicated to be accessed manually.’

Tanya: ‘And does that work now?’

Christoff: ‘Yes! Over the past four years I have tested this solution in several simulated scenarios. On phantoms – life size models of the human body, with tissue-like material and arteries inside – and on animal tissue. I published numerous articles that illustrate the potential use in clinical practice.’

Tanya: ‘So what’s next?’

Christoff: ‘To quote Neil Armstrong, my PhD research was a small step; what’s next is a giant leap. I am in the process of commercialising the product. My goal is to bring this technology to ORs. I know that my work has potential, and that it can actually have an impact on patient wellbeing. So, I decided to form a start-up: Flux Robotics. It’s been quite the rollercoaster ride, but I can’t complain.’

Tanya: ‘Do you feel like an entrepreneur?’

Christoff: ‘Definitely. It’s such an exciting feeling. All of a sudden, I have a totally different goal, a different perspective on how to approach problems or people. It feels like I’ve been taken out of a box labelled academia and put in a totally different box labelled business.’

‘I compare it to a newfound passion of mine: sailing. My girlfriend and I love to travel. We saw videos of a couple who spent the past five years sailing around the world and said: “we should do that too”. We got our sailing licences, and we recently went on our first weeklong trip to Croatia on a sailing boat.’

‘I surprised myself lately. I am a person of routines: I wake up in the morning, have my coffee, come to work, leave at five PM sharp. It’s almost compulsive. When I’m sailing, and in a way also when I’m wearing my business hat, it’s totally different. I enjoyed discovering that there are parts of me that I did not know myself. It’s really been eye-opening.’

Prof. Dr. TANYA BONDAROUK (1967)

was born and raised in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, where she studied chemistry and obtained her PhD in pedagogy. After an exchange at UT she decided to turn her career around again and completed a master's degree Educational & Training Systems Design, and then a PhD in IT Implementation. Meanwhile, she is now professor of Human Resource Management. In addition, she is the co-chair of the Shaping Expert Group Individuals and Teams.

Dr. Christoff Heunis (1992)

got his master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Stellenbosch University in South-Africa. In 2017 he came to UT to do his PhD in the Surgical Robotics Lab of the Department of Biomechanical Engineering (Faculty of Engineering Technology). During his PhD he developed the Advanced Robotics for Magnetic Manipulation (ARMM) system – a surgical robotics platform to accurately move catheters using externally-generated electromagnetic fields. Christoff is currently working on commercialising his work to bring this technology to operating rooms in the Netherlands and Germany.