Virtual experiments could soon be helping new surgeons hone their skills before they start work with live patients. This is the exciting research objective of European Research Council (ERC) fellow Stéphane Bordas, a Professor of Computational Mechanics who joined the University of Luxembourg at the end of 2013.

Bordas, along with collaborators at Cardiff University in the UK, was awarded a prestigious 1.3 million euro Starting Grant from the ERC in 2012 for this project. He is now continuing his research at the University of Luxembourg, bringing to this country the first ERC grant since the creation of the University.

Bordas’ long term aim is to develop real-time simulators, akin to flight simulators, which will help train surgeons, assist them during operations and contribute to enhancing surgical planning. By constructing virtual, ‘in silico’ replicas of the patients, such tools have the potential to reduce errors and post-operative complications and could eventually lead to robot-assisted and robot-led surgery.

The project itself is entitled “RealTcut” (reality cut) and was born from the realization of similarities between the structure of soft human tissue and that of advanced engineering materials such as those developed for the aerospace industry. “The ultimate goal is to be able to simulate surgical cutting for the first time in quasi real time, thereby allowing trainee surgeons to hone their skills in a virtual environment before beginning work with live patients,” explains Bordas.

The main challenge of the research is to enable both realistic and real-time simulation of phenomena such as cutting in soft tissue and which are, today, still poorly understood. Bordas is hopeful that this research project, which runs until 2017, and has already led to the first real-time error controlled simulator of cutting in soft tissue, will bring substantial fundamental advances as well as medical and industrial benefits.

Bordas, an engineering scientist born in Paris, joined the University in Luxembourg in order to continue his cutting-edge research in an environment he describes as, “a young university that is very open to innovative research ideas and supportive of research excellence.” Prior to his move to the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg he was Professor of Computational Mechanics at Cardiff University from 2009, with whom he remains affiliated, and where he also directed the Institute of Mechanics and Advanced Materials. Before that he was a permanent lecturer at Glasgow University’s Civil Engineering Department from 2006 to 2009. He graduated with a PhD in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Northwestern University, USA in 2003, after which he worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Since 2009, he has been collaborating with Dr Pierre Kerfriden of Cardiff University on the RealTcut research project.

ERC Starting Grants are awarded by the European Commission to support promising researchers with the proven potential of becoming independent research leaders and, thus, creating excellent new research teams in Europe.