Prof. Andrea Speidel

Surgical navigation systems Interview with Professor Stefanie Speidel

T umour operations are still associated with high risk, especially where they involve soft tissue such as is found in the abdomen. Surgeons performing minimally invasive procedures therefore require intelligent systems to safely guide the scalpel to the precise location of the tumour so that it can be removed in its entirety. Identifying solutions that are both highly complex and yet practicable calls for the type of interdisciplinary approach in which Stefanie Speidel specialises. Born in 1978, the multi-award-winning scientist was the first professor to be appointed at the Nationales Centrum für Tumorerkrankungen (National Center for Tumor Diseases – NCT) Dresden in spring of this year.

The Dresden facility was opened in 2015 to supplement the work being done at the main NCT site in Heidelberg. It is supported and funded by the Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum (German Cancer Research Center – DKFZ), the Carl Gustav Carus University Hospital, the Faculty of Medicine at TU Dresden and the Helmholtz Center Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR). What were your initial impressions of the facilities at NCT, and how do you rate Dresden as a place to do science and research in general?

Stefanie Speidel: NCT Dresden and the city itself with its many universities and scientific institutes provides the ideal prerequisites for me to pursue my research across a range of disciplines. In Karlsruhe, there was no Faculty of Medicine, while in Heidelberg, there were no engineering sciences – TU Dresden offers both. There are close links to various surgical specialisms at Dresden University Hospital, and together with scientific staff at the Helmholtz Center Dresden-Rossendorf, I am investigating the use of imaging during surgery. Since the German Cancer Research Center is also funding NCT Dresden, I am able to continue the close research connections with Heidelberg under the NCT umbrella.

The new NCT in Dresden.
The new building of the NCT in Dresden.

Your field of research is ‘Translational Surgical Oncology’ and involves the development of guidance systems for cancer surgery. Can you describe in greater detail the nature of your work?

Stefanie Speidel: Cancer surgery is performed on a scale of millimetres – if the surgeon cuts too close to the tumour, there is a danger that it will not be removed in its entirety and that the cancer will return. In the immediate vicinity, however, there will be blood vessels and nerves which must not be damaged. Together with my team, I am therefore working on the development of intelligent aids to guide the surgeon performing a minimally invasive procedure safely and without detour to the tumour – similar to the way that GPS in a car guides the driver to his or her destination.

What is new and particularly challenging is the development of such surgical guidance systems for the type of soft tissue that is found in the abdomen. The location and the shape of tissue and organs can constantly change as a result of breathing, heart beat or contact with medical instruments. We have to analyse and map these changes in real time.

We are also developing special software for smartglasses. This allows the surgeon to take a three-dimensional look inside the patient before the operation begins and to plan or perform the procedure more easily than before.

A smart visual aid for the surgeon: The tumours (green) and the vascular tree (blue) show up as three-dimensional representations in the endoscopic image.
A smart visual aid for the surgeon: The tumours (green) and the vascular tree (blue) show up as three-dimensional representations in the endoscopic image.

How soon and in what way will the results of your research help patients?

Stefanie Speidel: The smartglasses are currently being tested in pilot studies. In the new NCT building, which is taking shape on the campus of the University Hospital and should be ready by 2019, there will be an operating room of the future. There we will carry out studies on the navigation system and on robot-assisted surgery. I think it is quite realistic to expect these techniques to be applied in clinical practice for certain operations in about ten years’ time.

Scientific achievements are reported almost exclusively in the specialist press. In the mainstream media, an exhibition in the city gallery or a new book from a well-known author generally receives more coverage, not to mention the sports reports. Are you ever frustrated by this imbalance, which sometimes borders on ignorance?

Stefanie Speidel: I find it rather a pity that the scientific achievements all around us are often taken for granted. Scientific research is essential for the future of our society. I think that we as scientists can also contribute by openly entering into dialogue with society and emphasising the importance of research, especially in this age of alternative facts.

Even more so than the research itself, the private life of scientists remains off the radar. How does Stefanie Speidel spend her time outside the research lab? How do you feel about living in Dresden, and do you already have your own favourite places in the city?

Stefanie Speidel: I feel very much at home here in Dresden; the city has a lot to offer. It’s always fun to explore somewhere new. At the moment, I spend a lot of time on the Elbe embankment near the Blaues Wunder bridge. I also frequent Cafe emoi and the new library in the Kulturpalast.