UCLA doctor performs world's first robotic embolization

Innovation could help doctors, patients worldwide

Imagine you’re in rural Alaska. You develop a chronic nosebleed. It gets so bad that you need a medical intervention. But the nearest hospital doesn’t have a neuro-specialist who can perform such a sensitive procedure – and the clock is ticking.

Now imagine that you’re wheeled into an operating room in that Alaskan hospital. In the room is some robotic equipment. A neuroradiologist in California is controlling it remotely. The doctor uses the robot to perform the delicate operation from thousands of miles away. And you fully recover, having never left the snowy Alaskan wilderness.

Thanks to a recent breakthrough by UCLA’s Satoshi Tateshima, MD, this imagined scenario is one step closer to becoming reality.

Dr. Tateshima, an interventional neuroradiologist and professor of radiological sciences, performed the world’s first fully robotic embolization in 2021.

The patient Dr. Tateshima operated on had a severe case of COVID-19 that put him at risk for blood clots. To prevent those clots, doctors gave him a blood thinner. But this medicine caused chronic nosebleeds. Only embolization could stop the bleeding.

Embolization is a procedure that blocks blood vessels. Doctors insert a catheter into an artery or vein. They then insert an object or substance that stops blood flow. In the past, this was all done manually, with a doctor in the operating room. Or it was done in a hybrid fashion: The doctor inserted the catheter manually and then used robotic equipment for the rest of the procedure.

“But I wanted to do everything robotically,” says Dr. Tateshima. “That was my vision and that’s what we did.”

Why? The immediate reason was that the patient was COVID-19-positive. Sharing air with him invited risk. The long-term reason has to do with that imagined rural Alaska scenario.

Expanding care, reducing risks

Interventional neuroradiologist Dr. Satoshi Tateshima performed the world’s first fully robotic embolization in 2021. (UCLA Health photo)

When Dr. Tateshima performed this remote procedure, the patient wasn’t thousands of miles away. He was just over in the next room. But eventually this breakthrough could reverberate worldwide.

For patients, this technology can remove geographic barriers to care. Any hospital can offer world-class interventional neuroradiology. They just need the right robotic system and a solid internet connection.

“Eventually, for complete remote robotics, we should be able to perform everything,” says Dr. Tateshima. “The technology is there. With 5G, I think it’s possible.”

And for providers, it can reduce risk. Unfortunately, COVID-19 won’t be the last contagious disease. Giving doctors remote capabilities can help reduce their exposure.

And that’s not the only exposure providers need to worry about. Procedures such as embolization use X-ray technology, which emits radiation. For patients, this poses little risk – they’re only exposed once. But doctors perform many procedures per day, and the exposure can add up. Operating remotely eliminates this risk.

Since performing the first robotic embolization, Dr. Tateshima has completed three more. And if his vision for the future of robotic procedures comes to fruition, that’s only the beginning.

To learn more, visit the UCLA Health Radiology website.