Revealed: how robots have saved lives of 500 men in London battling deadly prostate cancer

London surgeons today hailed the pioneering use of robots in saving a record number of men from one of the UK’s deadliest cancers.

More than 500 men with advanced prostate cancer have had the diseased tissue removed this year by the £1million machines at University College London Hospitals.

Surgeons say robot-assisted surgery - which is quicker, safer and carries fewer side effects - has been a “game changer”. 

Professor John Kelly, clinical lead for urology at UCLH at Westmoreland Street hospital, said: “Although [conventional] surgery removes the cancerous tumour, patients are left with life-changing after-effects like incontinence and impotence, which can be devastating.

 Success: Consultant Greg Shaw with patient David Ferris (Jeremy Selwyn) 

Success: Consultant Greg Shaw with patient David Ferris (Jeremy Selwyn) 

“Robotic surgery has changed that - it gives us the precision to remove the cancerous tumour, preserving the tissues and functions around it. It gives men their lives back after prostate cancer.”

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men and the second biggest killer in men after lung cancer, causing 11,300 UK deaths a year.

The number of operations carried out by UCLH is expected to exceed 600 by the end of the year, the most ever performed by a NHS hospital in a year. 

It is double the number carried out across north and east London, west Essex and Hertfordshire before UCLH became the specialist uro-oncology centre for the region in 2015.

Surgeons say the centralisation of services has enabled to be offered to more men at risk of dying from the disease.

 Londoner with 'aggressive' cancer in successful op

The Evening Standard was invited to watch as a Londoner with “aggressive” prostate cancer underwent robotic surgery.

David Ferris, 66, an activist and political researcher, said he was “absolutely comfortable” to undergo the procedure, carried out by UCLH consultant urological surgeon Greg Shaw and his surgical team.

Mr Ferris, who lives in Soho, is one of the new generation of prostate cancer patients who was offered an MRI scan ahead of a biopsy.

This enables the painful biopsy procedure - which involves repeatedly inserting a needle into the prostate to gather evidence of the tumour - to be targeted at suspicious areas rather than “shooting in the dark” across the entire gland.

“I was told the two options were either to have the prostate removed or that I could have radiation and hormone treatment,” Mr Ferris said.

“The recommendation was that I should go for the former and, having considered it, it seemed to me that made absolute sense.

“About two years ago, my PSA was getting higher and various tests were done. We found out, as is commonly the case, I had prostate cancer but it was a very slow-growing thing and the sensible thing was not to do anything about it.

“You are then monitored periodically. About six months ago, it was discovered that my prostate cancer was growing rather aggressively.”

Cancer was found to be “bulging out” on left side of his prostate, towards the nerves - which were likely to have to be severed in the process.

“The first priority is always to remove the cancer, said consultant surgeon Prasanna Sooriakumaran. “The second is to preserve continence and potency. The robot allows most surgeons to get great results more easily.”

Mr Shaw said the operation was a success and Mr Ferris was heading home today.

The two Da Vinci robots are in use six days a week. 

Greg Shaw, a consultant urological surgeon who performs three robotic operations a day, said: “When it comes to specialist treatment, it makes sense for the resource to be concentrated. 

“I think it can only have positive outcomes for the patients and the level of care that they get.”

 Greg Shaw operates the robot used to treat prostate cancer patients (Jeremy Selwyn)

Greg Shaw operates the robot used to treat prostate cancer patients (Jeremy Selwyn)

The hospital, formerly the Heart Hospital, performs prostate surgery previously carried out at hospitals such as Whipps Cross, Homerton, North Middlesex, Queen’s in Romford and Princess Alexandra in Harlow. The reconfiguration is part of a NHS cancer “vanguard” to promote best practice.

Consultant surgeon Prasanna Sooriakumaran said: “No centre in the UK has done 500 robotic prostatectomies in one year before. Patients come from deep dark Essex all the way into UCLH, and from as far north as Stevenage. 

“We have a catchment of about 14 smaller local hospitals that have stopped doing prostatectomy and they send their cases to us. 

“Rather than having 50 surgeons doing 500 cases, you have five surgeons doing 500 cases. Both Greg and I do about 150 to 200 a year. As a group we do 550. The average surgeon in the UK does 39.”

The increase in workload had been driven by the ageing population - men are now dying from prostate cancer because of a reduction in smoking and heart disease - and the capacity to do more, and more complex, surgery.

Patients are able to go home the following day, compared with five days in hospital for conventional “open” surgery. The aim is to treat all patients within 18 weeks of a referral from their GP.

The latest version of the robot, the Da Vinci Xi, has been in use in several London hospitals, including the Royal Marsden and Guy’s, since 2015. 

The surgeon “drives” the robot with his hands and feet, manipulating its tiny scissors and pliers inside the patient. 

An internal 3D camera displays instantaneous images to the surgeon’s high-definition console. The robot’s six arms are inserted through small cuts in the patient’s abdomen.

Mr Shaw said: “We are at the start of this technology. It’s only going to get better.”