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Credit: Madison Valerio

Doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania conducted the world's first robot-assisted spinal surgery, according to a press release from Penn Medicine.

In the operation, robotic arms played a key role in removing a rare tumor from a patient's neck, according to the same press release. The operation, which occurred over two days in Aug. 2017, was described as groundbreaking by the doctors involved. 

After a car accident in 2016, 27-year-old Noah Pernikoff discovered that he suffered from a rare cancer called chordoma that occurs in the skull base and spine, he said in the press release. Pernikoff was then referred to Penn Medicine, where the Department of Neurosurgery started to explore a radical option for surgery. 

According to the press release, Neurosurgery and Orthopaedic Surgery professor Neil Malhotra brought together a team of doctors to implement a robot-assisted surgery. 

Otorhinolaryngology department chair and professor Bert W. O'Malley Jr. assisted the effort and used "a trans-oral robotic (TORS) approach" during the surgery. 

Invented at Penn, TORS is the "world's first group of minimally invasive robotic surgery techniques to remove benign and malignant tumors of the mouth and throat," according to Penn Medicine's press release.

Although the operation is undoubtedly a major step forward in the field of robotic surgery, there is still a long way to go before completely robotic surgery becomes "commonplace," according to the technology website Engadget.

“This would be a first ever use of a robot in this manner—a rare approach to an already rare and complex case,” Malhotra told Penn Medicine. “Our team needed to reconstruct the removed area of Pernikoff’s spine using bone and rods, and that was only the beginning.”

According to the press release, Pernikoff is now back at work as a commercial contractor in New York City and credits Penn Medicine for saving his life.