Ideals inspire medical innovator

May 15, 2003

HAMILTON, Canada — Mehran Anvari first discovered his love for surgery in high school while dissecting frogs and other small animals.

"I was pretty good in dissection class, and I felt this was something I really enjoyed," said the 43-year-old Canadian physician. "I remember we did dogfish, we did frogs, we did rats."

Dr. Anvari has come a long way from carving up specimens preserved in formaldehyde. The founder and director of the Center for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS) at McMaster University here, he is among the world's leading practitioners of laparoscopic surgery.

"The layman's term is 'keyhole' surgery," said Dr. Anvari, describing where the surgeon operates through a small incision via a long slender tube (usually equipped with miniature video camera) that allows him to see and work inside the body.

Such "minimally invasive" surgery causes less trauma to the patient, allowing faster healing and lowering the probability of post-operative infection.

Recently, Dr. Anvari broke new ground when he used a specially configured laparoscopic robot, which measured and then precisely transmitted the movements of his hands and fingers, to operate on a patient some 400 kilometers away, in North Bay, Ontario.

Performed on 28 February 2003, it was the world's first hospital-to-hospital operation of this kind.

3 images
Dr. Mehran Anvari, left, using a specialized robot performs an historic operation via telerobotics. (Courtesy St. Joseph's Healthcare)

Dr. Anvari credits his practice of the Baha'i Faith in part for providing him with the inspiration and motivation for effort. "It is the global outlook, given to me by the Faith, that has stirred me to do this kind of work," he said.

A science fiction dream, such "telerobotic" surgery has been long talked about for use in outer space and at remote outposts. And Dr. Anvari and others believe it has great potential not only in Canada but in the developing world.

"It is a tremendously exciting thing he has done," said Dr. William Orovan, chair of the department of surgery at McMaster. "It has huge applications in a country like Canada, which has a small population scattered over a wide area. It brings first-rate surgical care to remote communities."

Dr. Anvari views his work as much more than simply a high technology platform for doing delicate operations at a distance.

In related endeavors to develop and promote "telementoring" -- in which he "looks over the shoulder" of another surgeon via video relay and guides him or her by voice -- Dr. Anvari hopes to be of service to the entire human race.

Though founded just four years ago, more than 500 doctors have received training at CMAS -- and at least 50 have been from outside Canada, coming from countries as far away as India, China, and Russia.

"The Baha'i ideals have given me very much clarity about the fact that we live in a world that is very connected, and I believe it is important to look not only at what you can do to help yourself, but at what you can do to help others," said Dr. Anvari.

His activities as a Baha'i are also responsible, at least in part, for his interest in telerobotics. Until last year, he served on a Baha'i committee charged with spreading the Baha'i teachings to all parts of Canada, something that often took him as far as the Arctic Circle.

"Because of my Baha'i activities, I had a chance to travel to many parts of Canada -- and around the world -- and I saw the need across the country, and globally, for improved surgery and health care," said Dr. Anvari.

Born in Iran, Dr. Anvari was raised in a family where both parents were involved in the medical profession and he had always been interested in medicine and patient care. "But I found I enjoyed working with my hands, and so I specialized in surgery."

Dr. Anvari's breakthrough came about by combining advances in information technology with laparoscopic robotics, enabling him to do delicate surgery at a distance. "All I did was to think about a way to put things together, things that exist in other health care settings," he said.

The operation was widely reported. Articles were carried in the Toronto Star, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Sun. As well, TIME Canada, CBC Radio and TV, CTV, and Global have reported on Dr. Anvari's efforts.

"The robotic surgery attracts a lot of attention because it is new and very 'Star Wars'-ish," said Dr. Anvari. "But a very important and critical aspect of our work is focused on establishing new centers in other countries, in training other surgeons, and in providing mentoring and telementoring."

CMAS is currently exploring setting up collaborative programs with medical centers in Haiti, Yemen, and Uganda. "We have learned a number of things here that can help improve the quality of health in many countries," said Dr. Anvari.