Hevona, a 9-year-old bay mare, stood patiently as two massive robotic arms swiveled around to capture a CT scan of her right foreleg.
The horse was under moderate sedation Wednesday morning at a University of Pennsylvania veterinary facility, so she did not move much. But traditionally, any motion at all is the bane of a CT scan, rendering the images blurry and near-worthless.
The robotic system, newly installed at Penn's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, has sophisticated cameras and software to correct for any movement by the patient. That allows veterinarians to capture high-resolution images of a horse without the risks of using general anesthesia, and it enables them to see much more of the animal.
After all, there is only so much of a horse that fits into one of those traditional doughnut-shaped CT scanners, said Dean Richardson, professor of equine surgery at Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine.
"The problem is, we have really, really big patients, and they don't fit into those tubes," Richardson said. "There are so many horizons out there that we need to investigate, and this gives us the opportunity to do so."
The robotic-arm technology also could be used on human patients, especially children who might not hold still for a traditional CT scan, said Barbara Dallap Schaer, the medical director at the New Bolton Center, who led the effort to acquire the robotic system and will help develop treatment protocols.
Also in development: software that would allow the system to capture X-ray-style videos of a horse while it runs on a treadmill. That application also could be used on people, such as patients with back pain, the Penn team said.
The advantage of scanning bones in motion is that clinicians can see what is happening while force is applied, said Yiorgos Papaioannou, chief executive officer of 4DDI, the New York-based company that designed the system.
He said clinicians using the system will be able to discern microfractures and other problem areas before they turn into full-blown injury.
"We'll have a way of predicting lameness before it actually happens," said Papaioannou, whose company sought guidance from Penn's team as it developed the system.
Penn Vet's Thomas Schaer, who is directing translational research with the system and is married to Dallap Schaer, said he already has spoken to physicians at Penn, the Rothman Institute, and the Nemours health system about using the technology on humans.
Penn officials declined to reveal how much the system cost, saying only that it was funded partly by a gift from the estate of Mimi Thorington, a longtime benefactor who lived in nearby East Fallowfield.
But Richardson said the purchase made economic sense.
"Veterinary medicine is a market-driven business," he said. "I'm confident that this is realistic. We're not subsidizing the cost of this."
So far, the equipment has been used only on test subjects, not for the treatment of injured animals. Hevona is the property of Penn, which is the first veterinary teaching hospital to acquire the equipment. It was installed in February.
While the research advances will be exciting, the most immediate benefit may be equine safety. When recovering from the anesthesia used for traditional CT scans, animals can injure themselves, Dallap Schaer said.
"The process of recovering from general anesthesia is an athletic event for the horse," she said.