Day #62: Iron Ball

Dr. Fred Boehner is not a medical doctor. He is an engineer by training, with a doctorate on magnetics. And he is promising to change the world.

Dr. Boehner is a dashing figure, for a scientist. His brown hair, reflecting his military past, is cut Marine short. Unlike some soldiers, he hasn’t let himself go after his time in the service. At the age of 56, his trim and strong body reveals a man in fantastic shape. But those who meet him rarely remember his fitness or his hair. What they remember is the excitement that dances in his eyes – excitement they find themselves wrapped up in, without even knowing the cause.

It is that electric enthusiasm that had drawn his present crowd – executives and scientists from the largest medical device makers in the world.

In front of him, on an operating table, is a rat. It’s midsection is encircled by a donut of equipment.

Dr. Boehner, his slight German accent defining his voice, explains, “This rat has a cancerous tumor in its midsection. I am going to demonstrate the first non-invasive surgery to remove it. Let me just remind you that you must remove all metal prior to this demonstration. It is highly unlikely that unsecured metal will actually be impacted by this magnetic field, but better safe than sorry. So, is everybody ready?”

The assembled audience, all standing around the operating table for the best vantage point, nod their agreement.

“Good,” says Dr. Boehner, “Before we begin, I want to also remind all of you that this is covered by a fleet of patents and patent applications and that you have signed non-disclosures and non-competes as it regards this technology.”

Again the assembled audience nods.

Gesturing to two screens just outside the operating theater, Dr. Boehner says, “You will notice, behind the windows, the high-resolution 4D-ultrasound image of the rat’s internal organs. We can see the rat’s liver there. The actual tumor is in the middle of the liver and can’t be seen by the ultrasound. Nonetheless its location has been carefully documented. This ultrasound will guide the surgical process without an internal camera.”

He hits a button again and the liver is once again visible. He then picks up a syringe from a plastic supply table. It is filled with a dark gray substance.

“Within this syringe, I havea collection of specially treated and heavily milled magnetite particles. In the only ‘invasive’ step of today’s surgery, I will inject the patient with this formula.

Leaning forward, Dr. Boehner administers the shot. The gray mass appears on the ultrasound. Moments later, he flicks a switch and the mass congeals into a tight ball.

“The system has now been turned on. It is a system of highly calibrated magnetic fields which shape the iron formula into whatever pattern is desired. What you’re about to see is something quite amazing, in my opinion. I have pre-scanned this cancerous mass using a variety of systems and – using simulation software – I have predetermined how to remove it. The great advantage of the iron particles is that they can be shaped in any way and move in any way. That is unlike a traditional surgical implement which has one shape and is thus limited in what it can perform. What I’ve prepared for today is a cancerous extraction from the center of the liver. The iron will actually form a small tube to the edge of the cancerous mass. Particles will then go through that tube and cut their way around the edge of the tumor, eventually encircling it in a tight ball. Other particles will come in and cut the mass into tiny pieces – all within the ball of iron that contains it. Finally, the tumor particles will be forced back up the narrow tube, while being entirely surrounded by the magnetite bubble.”

A hand is raised.

“Yes?”

“How does your preparation process deal with variations in actual body and organ movement?”

“That was challenging,” says Dr. Boehner, “But the system has been programmed to take those changes in stride. It actually alters the predetermined movements on the fly. In addition, we do take a little extra material to ensure small levels of movement won’t thwart the process.”

“Thank you,” say the questioner.

“The system is actually controlled by my voice,” says Dr. Boehner, “I say a phrase to turn on the voice recognition and then it will respond to my commands.”

After a moment’s pause, he speaks again, “Dancing elves are funny.” On the monitors outside the theater a red light turns green.

Dr. Boehner continues, “Commence.”

As the assembled audience watches, the iron particles drill into the liver and extract the tumor, just as described.

The operation works perfectly.

Dr. Boehner says, “Seal.”

There is a flurry of movement on the outside of the liver.

“Elves stop,” says  Dr. Boehner, and the light outside the room goes back to red.

“What I’ve just done is, through extreme excitation of the magnetic field, cauterized the outside of the liver to reduce bleeding and promote a faster recovery. Now, I will use the syringe used to inject the iron to extract both the iron and the cancerous material. The syringe is of a large enough diameter to allow the iron seal to be maintained.”

He pulls back the syringe’s plunger and then sinks it into the  rat’s side and navigates it to the iron mass.

“Dancing elves are funny.”

Green light.

“Extract.”

The iron moves into the syringe without being pulled.

“Elves stop.”

Red light.

Dr. Boeher places a small bandage on the rat’s torso. He then pushes a button and turns the system off.

He unstraps the rat and it jumps up and runs back to its cage.

“Faster recovery, a non-sterile theater, tremendous control of the surgical procedure, speed, precision and the ability to run preparatory simulations.” He turns back back to the assembled executives and scientists, “What do you think?”

“Cool technology,” says the man who asked the earlier question, “But irrelevant. It will require new capital equipment which will have to be allocated to each operation, significantly raising costs. In addition, it isn’t really providing any clinical benefits that can be shown in a way the gatekeepers will accept.”

“Speed and reduced healing times aren’t relevant?”

“Not unless you can demonstrate that you get everything a regular surgery provides in the process. And your use of a magnetic fields means you don’t have a backup in case things go wrong.”

“I can open up the rat in an emergency.”

“Not without a sterile theater you can’t and there goes a major cost benefit.”

The others nod.

“Sorry,” says the man, “This is cool, but it doesn’t matter. No hospital, insurance company or government program would agree to fund it.”

There are nods of agreement.

The excitement dims in Dr. Boehner’s eyes.

“Well,” he says, “Thank you for your feedback.”

With a forced smile, he guides the assembled audience out of his lab.

One word runs through his mind as he thinks about his five years on the project.

“Shit.”

He hopes, somehow, he’ll regroup.