Dr. Thomas E. Ahlering and Dr. Michael K. Louie
Dr. Thomas E. Ahlering (left) and Dr. Michael K. Louie, who head UC Irvine Medical Center's new Robotic Oncology Center, battle cancer with such state-of-the-art technology as the da Vinci Surgical System. Steve Zylius/UC Irvine

In the ever-evolving battle against cancer, the surgical robot is gaining ground. UC Irvine Healthcare announced last month that it’s the first medical center on the West Coast and the only one in California to perform robotic thyroidectomies, which remove the diseased gland without leaving a visible scar on the neck.

The da Vinci Surgical System is facilitating an increasing number of such procedures, and to further advance use of this new technology, UC Irvine Healthcare in July established a Robotic Oncology Center. Dr. Jason H. Kim, associate clinical professor of otolaryngology and a head & neck cancer specialist, has employed the da Vinci system on three patients with thyroid tumors.

“We’re excited to be able to offer this kind of surgery to the Orange County community,” Kim says. “Traditional ‘open’ surgery to remove the thyroid gland requires a 3- to 5-inch incision across the front of the neck, and other minimally invasive surgical techniques can reduce the scar to about 1 inch. But with the robot, we avoid the neck incision altogether by making a small, easily hidden cut in the patient’s armpit. That opening provides access for the robot’s arms, which then are maneuvered by the surgeon to the thyroid.”

At UC Irvine Medical Center, prostate, kidney, ureteral and gynecologic cancers also are being addressed via robotic surgery. Use of the da Vinci technology will expand in that last category under the new director of gynecologic oncology, Dr. Robert E. Bristow, who gained extensive experience with robotics at Johns Hopkins University. And robot-assisted surgery for lung, stomach and colorectal cancers is soon to follow.

“To our knowledge, there isn’t another center in the country specific to robotic oncology,” says urologic oncologist Dr. Thomas E. Ahlering, director of the Robotic Oncology Center and a nationally known expert in robotic prostatectomy. He’s performed more than 1,000 robotic surgeries to treat prostate cancer and has developed techniques to reduce postoperative urinary difficulties.

“This center is vitally important to our community,” Ahlering says. “Typically, cancer involves radical procedures. The Robotic Oncology Center emphasizes minimally invasive approaches that achieve equal or better medical outcomes.”

For surgeons, robotics can offer enhanced precision, dexterity, range of motion and imaging during operations. For patients, the technology can mean less injury to nearby healthy tissue, smaller scars, reduced pain, decreased need for medication and faster recovery.

“The Robotic Oncology Center is a prime example of how an academic medical center can pool the talents of its world-renowned surgeons to provide the highest quality of robot-assisted cancer care to Orange County and beyond,” says Dr. Ralph V. Clayman, dean of UCI’s School of Medicine and an internationally recognized authority in minimally invasive renal surgery.

“Our new center, which focuses on the specific application of robotic technology to cancer surgery, enables us to continually advance this exciting technology and create university-led innovations, much to the betterment of every patient who seeks our care.”

The Robotic Oncology Center is part of UCI’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of just 40 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the U.S. and the only one in Orange County. In 2002, doctors there were the first in Southern California to perform robotic prostate surgery, using the da Vinci system. UCI also houses one of the busiest robotic training facilities for surgeons on the West Coast.

“To have this in our own backyard,” says urologist Dr. Michael K. Louie, co-director of the Robotic Oncology Center, “is a wonderful gift to the Orange County community.”