Robotics create possible game-changer for treatment in pancreas issues

Patients report less pain, shorter hospital stay, faster recovery

HOUSTON – Traditional surgery for pancreatic cancer requires a lengthy, open procedure and lots of recovery time. Now, advancements in robotics are making it possible for doctors to operate in the delicate area near the bile ducts and major blood vessels in a minimally invasive way.

In 2011, Helen Byrne began having pain in her side. An ultrasound showed kidney stones and three cysts in her pancreas.

"One in the head of the pancreas. Being a nurse, I understood the complexity of what that could mean," Byrne said.

The cysts were not cancerous at the time, so for four years, Dr. David Kooby, an oncologist, kept a watchful eye on them.

"It will turn to cancer at some point," Byrne said. "The goal is to get it out before it gets there." 

Byrne was one of Kooby's first patients to undergo robotic surgery to remove pancreatic cysts. With robotics, Kooby is able to control tiny instruments and a camera inserted through keyhole incisions in the abdomen.

"I can use one instrument to retract an organ, two instruments to work with," Kooby said. "I can decide where the camera is going to be. It has increased stability, and it has binocular vision, so I can actually see in three dimension."

With the robotic surgery, many patients have reported having less pain, a shorter hospital stay and a faster recovery.

"As we get better at it, and the technology gets better, we may see patients get back to chemotherapy faster after surgery,” Kooby said.

"It didn't slow me down -- having surgery -- hardly at all," Byrne said.

Because it requires specialized training and is considered to be a complicated procedure, the robotic surgery for pancreatic cancer is only performed at a handful of major U.S. medical centers. Some of those include Emory, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and University of Southern California.