Ruperto Carola 2/97
Research Magazine of Heidelberg University

Robot Surgeons: A Serious Prospect?

Robots do some jobs better than humans, not only on assembly lines in the car industry but also in the operating theater. This at least is the view taken by Joachim Mühling, Director of the Department of Stomatology, Orthodontics and Facial Surgery at Heidelberg's University Hospital. In highly sensitive areas such as facial osteopathic manipulation, where precision is of the essence, robots can be a valuable aid to surgeons in ensuring the utmost possible accuracy for their handiwork. Accordingly, the new Special Research Scheme “Computer- and Sensor-Aided Surgery”, now in its initial stages, is setting out to develop tailor-made computer assistance for surgeons. In this project the University of Heidelberg has joined forces with the University of Karlsruhe and the German Cancer Research Center in developing and testing ways of simulating operations on the computer screen, aided and abetted by navigation instruments and robots.

Three of the other articles in the new issue of Heidelberg University's research magazine are also concerned with medical issues. Virologist Gholamreza Darai and his coworkers at the Institute of Hygiene have been studying well-known viruses causing new diseases. What are the implications of the recent flurry of reports on renewed outbreaks of cholera, plague, haemorrhagic fever and infections with hanta and ebola viruses? In the last two years alone there have been 344 cases of ebola registered in Africa. And Germany is by no means automatically safe from new virus epidemics. Livestock freight and travelers can bring dangerous virus strains into the country.

Viruses are also the subject of the research being done by Michael Nassal and Heinz Schaller. There are over 300 million people worldwide suffering from chronic hepatitis-B infections. The culprit is a distant cousin of the the AIDS virus. The infection rarely has any acute effects but chronic virus carriers are at much higher risk of contracting cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. At present the prospects of successful therapy are unfortunately slight. Research at the Molecular Biology Center of Heidelberg University has succeeded in identifying fundamental mechanisms operative in the proliferation cycle of this unusual virus. In theory this could open up new therapeutic avenues to explore.

The research endeavors of Uwe Bleyl and Michael Härle are devoted to improving cancer diagnosis. Up to now, molecular biology and pathology have had very little in common, despite their joint interest in human and animal cells. Traditionally, molecular biology has been concerned with the structure and function of the molecular building-blocks of living organisms, notably proteins and nucleic acids, whereas classical pathology spent over a hundred years attempting to study and diagnose diseases by looking at deviations in the form and size, staining properties and histochemical structure of cells and their distribution in living tissue. Today, modern pathology avails itself of the methods developed by molecular biology with a view to drawing on the genetic information of cells to improve cancer diagnosis.

One of Baron Münchhausen's most notorious exploits was dragging himself out of a swamp by his own hair. This is precisely the situation researchers find themselves in when they set out to test their own hypotheses. Philosopher Martin Carrier tells us how this apparently impossible feat can be achieved.

Gerhard Besier's article is a review of the history of the Protestant church as reflected in the legacy of a divided Germany. In the course of the 40 years in question, the Federal Republic's Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) and the Federation of Protestant Churches in the GDR (BEK) developed divergent attitudes and modes of operation that have survived reunification. Although this is vehemently contested by the churches themselves, the differences are especially conspicuous in the theological attitudes towards the ethics of political action. Literary testimonies and empirical surveys from the last six years corroborate the evidence culled from the archives suggesting that in the course of a historical-cum-genetic process what were once tolerably homogeneous religious milieus diversified into different religious subcultures. In this process minorities formed on both sides displaying sympathies for the subcultural constellations developing on the other side of the Wall.

As usual, the present issue also contains the permanent columns “New from the Stiftung Universität Heidelberg Foundation”, “Young Researchers Report”, “Outside Funding” and “News and Views”. In the latter, political scientist Manfred G. Schmidt undertakes a critical scrutiny of the attempt to evaluate the performance of the Biology, Economics and Philosophical-Historical Faculties in the form of a research profile. In the Editorial, former Rector Peter Ulmer discusses the consequences of the Ministry of Education's generalized approach to the cuts it has imposed on the University.

“Ruperto Carola” is printed by Universitätsverlag C. Winter – Heidelberger Verlagsanstalt.
Single copies cost DM 10,- (DM 5,- for students). Like the special support subscription (4 issues for DM 60,-), they can be ordered from: Pressestelle der Universität Heidelberg, Postfach 105760, D-69047 Heidelberg.

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Updated: 16.04.98 at 14:33:15 (Thewalt)