Author: Abigail Sussman
A image combining two photos - a grad student utilizes the interface of the da Vinci robotic surgical system and a close-up view of the robot making florescent sutures.
“It essentially is giving you a superhuman capability to see something that’s normally hidden in the surgical process."—Justin Opfermann

Justin Opfermann, a mechanical engineering PhD student in the IMERSE Lab at the Whiting School of Engineering, diligently watches a monitor in a mock operating room. On the screen, he sees fellow student Yaning Wang carefully stitch two pieces of synthetic tissue together using the da Vinci robotic surgical system.  

Wang guides the two robotic forceps as they pass a clear suture back and forth, threading it through the pink rubber. But, with a couple of taps on the monitor to change the camera settings, Opfermann demonstrates that this is no ordinary suture. Everything on the screen turns black and white except for the stitches, which glow bright green. 

The fluorescent suture is part of Glow and Sew, a tool Opfermann and his partners Wang and Jiawei Ge are developing to help surgeons improve outcomes in surgery that joins two tubes together, known as anastomosis. This kind of surgery can be challenging, especially when there’s blood in the surgical field or the tissue folds in on itself, making the suture difficult to see and leading to less than perfect sewing. 

“It’s very difficult, but you need to be perfect at it 100% of the time to stop a complication,” Opfermann explains. “Imagine if you need to sew two tubes of intestine together and you are perfect 19 out of 20 stitches. Well, 95% of the time is pretty good; you would pass your test in school. But in surgery, you mess up on that one stitch; you have a hole. And that is where fluid is going to leak into the patient and cause sepsis and infection and complication.”  

Unlike typical sutures, the Glow and Sew suture is coated in fluorescent powder that glows under near-infrared light, which is also able to penetrate through the blood and tissue, allowing surgeons to always see where their stitches are.  

“It essentially is giving you a superhuman capability to see something that’s normally hidden in the surgical process,” Opfermann says. 

Opfermann came up with the idea for Glow and Sew with the help of Axel Krieger, Engr ‘08 (PhD), and Simon Leonard, PhD, around five years ago, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that he was able to test his idea thanks to funding from the Whiting School’s Student Initiatives Fund. The fund, which is managed by Whiting alumni and friends to the school, is designed to encourage students to use classroom learning to build practical, hands-on applications that may solve real-world problems. Glow and Sew received $2,500 in support to buy supplies, develop and test initial concepts, and create a working prototype that the team can use to get additional funding in the future. 

“It means a lot to me to be part of an environment where you have alumni that are able to support student development,” Opfermann says. “This is something that’s incredibly unique, and I’m very thankful for.” 

The next part of the Glow and Sew project will be to find a way to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning to create overlays to show surgeons where each stitch should go. Opfermann plans to use the data from all his research to apply for patents and other grants in the hopes of bringing his ideas into actual operating rooms to improve real patient outcomes.