Every once in a long while, an innovation comes along that absolutely changes the world. Think of Thomas Edison and the electric light bulb that morphed into the firm now known as General Electric (NYSE: GE ) . Think Henry Ford's (NYSE: F ) assembly line and the revolution it generated in the automobile industry. Think Alexander Graham Bell's telephone that launched AT&T (NYSE: T ) .
Light bulbs, mass-produced vehicles, and telephones -- we now take these things for granted as part of everyday life, but they were all once radical inventions. In fact, at one time, they may have been called Rule Breakers for all the change they foisted on the world. Now, imagine a product with similar potential to shake things up in the medical arena. The product is none other than Intuitive Surgical's (Nasdaq: ISRG ) da Vinci surgical system. It is absolutely revolutionizing the way doctors operate.
On the table
The unfortunate truth is that traditional surgery is a nasty business. To operate on a patient, doctors must cut incisions large enough to allow their hands and instruments into the patient, allow enough light for them to see what they're doing, and create enough maneuvering room to do what needs to be done. As a general rule of thumb, the larger the surgical site, the longer and more painful the recovery and the higher the risk of infection.
In response to this problem, a new breed of surgery was born, often known as "laparoscopy." This minimally invasive technique called for using flexible cameras and special instruments that could be inserted through smaller holes than were used in traditional surgeries. The techniques have been fabulous and have largely delivered on their promise of faster, less painful recoveries. As a result, medical-device manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) have done quite a business producing the tools necessary to allow surgeons to provide these services to their patients.
Yet even with the improvements to patient recovery and well-being, laparoscopy can do only so much. The world is 3-D, yet traditional scope systems allow only a 2-D view of the patient's insides. That makes it more difficult for the doctor to judge depth while working. Additionally, traditional laparoscopy instruments have limited ranges of motion and require awkward moves, thus making them ill-suited for complex techniques. As a result, in spite of the obvious advantages of this type of surgery, the number of different laparoscopic operations remained limited by the technology.
A giant leap forward
Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci system addresses these major shortcomings and, as a result, is absolutely changing the world of minimally invasive surgeries. With its 3-D imaging system, the doctor can now more easily see depth inside the patient. That takes much of the guesswork out of maneuvering. Additionally, with da Vinci's robotic controls, operating through the device requires making hand moves much more in line with traditional surgery than ordinary laparoscopy allows. In some ways, its controls are even better than a scalpel, since da Vinci can even compensate for small, accidental hand tremors. As a result of these improvements, the da Vinci system has the potential to open the floodgates to permit far more complex surgeries than traditional laparoscopy.
By combining the best of ordinary surgery with the best of minimally invasive techniques, this device is a modern-day operating room miracle. The da Vinci system may very well some day stand with anesthesia, antibiotics, and sterilization as a foundational pillar of a successful surgical practice.
The advantages of being early
Of course, Intuitive Surgical and its early investors are in an excellent position to profit from their invention's success and its chance to turn the medical world on its ear. Subscribers to Fool co-founder David Gardner's Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter can count themselves among that group. A selection in the April 2005 edition, Intuitive Surgical has watched its shares skyrocket some 160% as the investing world has started to awaken to the tremendous potential of its device and the impact it may have on operating rooms throughout the world. For nearly every industry, the next light bulb is out there. In the surgical world, that device is known as the da Vinci Surgical System.
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