When Barbara Dallap Schaer, V’94, Medical Director of New Bolton Center, first learned of a novel imaging system in development that paired advanced computed tomography (CT) imaging with cutting-edge robotic technology, she saw potential for a major shift in how we look inside a living body. Not only for animals, but for people as well.
“I could easily see how this could solve two or three problems we regularly encounter in imaging horses,” she recalls. And after becoming more familiar with the system, she and her colleagues at New Bolton Center, Penn’s large animal hospital in Kennett Square, began to consider a host of other possibilities.
“Right out of the gate, we could imagine translational opportunities [including some for people] that really excited us,” says Dallap Schaer. And she knew that Penn, with its commitment to innovation and cross-school collaboration, would be the perfect place to cultivate this exciting advance.
Soon after, New Bolton Center became the first veterinary teaching hospital to install a robotics-controlled imaging system for use with standing horses. In 2016, it began testing and developing the promising but then-unproven technology.
Today, that technology has become the centerpiece of New Bolton Center’s planned Advanced Imaging and Translational Center—a key priority of The Power of Penn Vet Campaign. Its development has resulted in a pioneering system that produces high-quality, efficient imaging of horses. And it has catalyzed a growing array of applications that could hold great promise for human health.
“Every day, working with the robots brings a new advance, a new discovery,” says Dallap Schaer. “Extending and applying that potential to animals and humans will be a primary focus for us.”
Bringing Imaging to the Patient
Unlike traditional CT, which entails anesthetizing a horse and fitting it into a narrow scanning unit, robotics-controlled CT brings imaging to the horse. These huge animals remain awake and standing, as scanners on mechanical arms move around the body area being examined. The seconds-long process, which also uses high-speed motion detection cameras, is designed to work with a modicum of movement by the horse.
The technology has generated advances in diagnosis and treatment, thanks to its ability to produce highly detailed imagery and get to parts of the body formerly out of reach. It has also provided critical guidance and imaging during complicated surgeries and opened up exciting new areas of study. Orthopedic, neurological, and cardiac cases have made extensive use of it, but its applications to other specialties and species are “almost unlimited,” according to Dallap Schaer.
The Game-Changing Potential of MOTION
The system’s ability to image patients in motion is one of its most revolutionary assets. No other imaging modality has accomplished this to date. Already, Penn Vet and Penn Medicine are collaborating on adapting it for use with pediatric patients who have difficulty staying still. The brief imaging process could take place as a child plays on an iPad or talks with a parent. Dallap Schaer calls this “a game changer.”
“Evaluating patients while they are moving could reveal why they have pain or suggest why joint degeneration occurs,” says Thomas Schaer, Director of Penn Vet’s Preclinical Service Core and Translation in Orthopedic Surgery. And this touches on just a few of the pathbreaking possibilities.
New Bolton Center teams are already at work programming their robots to capture images of a horse in motion; their ultimate goal is to image a horse running on a treadmill.
Meanwhile, collaborations with Penn Medicine are already underway seeking to apply the technology with humans. Success in this area, says Thomas Schaer, could vastly expand our understanding of human movement and improve the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
A LOOK INSIDE
A new intraoperative robotic CT system developed specifically for New Bolton Center will anchor the Advanced Imaging and Translational Center. Other plans for the 33,180-square-foot facility include a state-of-the-art operating room; patient preparation area; and a new highfield MRI unit, one of the only magnets of its kind on the East Coast.
In addition to expanding imaging services for animals, the new center will lead the way in evaluating robotic CT’s potential for human patients.