ARCHIVED - Surgical robot revolutionizes brain surgery

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October 07, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario

Brain surgery has stepped into a bright new era where high-precision robots will do the job, guided by sophisticated imaging systems and a surgeon's skill at a computer. "NeuroArm" ― the world's first MRI-compatible, image-guided surgical robot ― promises to dramatically increase surgical accuracy and safety by liberating it from the constraints of the human hand. Patients should see better surgical outcomes and fewer repeat surgeries for tumours that can grow back if not completely removed.

Unveiled in Calgary in April 2007, NeuroArm is the brainchild of Dr. Garnette Sutherland, professor at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Medicine and neurosurgeon for the Calgary Health Region. In a six-year project that turned concept into reality, Dr. Sutherland guided a multidisciplinary team of Canadian university and industry-based scientists, including NRC biodiagnostics and materials researchers. NeuroArm was built in collaboration with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the Ontario-based robotics company that built the two Canadarms used on NASA space shuttles.

NeuroArm can manipulate tools with a level of dexterity far exceeding that of a human. Photo credit: Jason Stang, University of Calgary
NeuroArm can manipulate tools with a level of dexterity far exceeding that of a human. Photo credit: Jason Stang, University of Calgary

"NeuroArm offers enhanced dexterity and accuracy, even at microscopic levels,"
Dr. Sutherland explains. "Surgeons will no longer have to stand over a patient's head for hours, fighting off tremor or fatigue while executing high-precision work. This new technology allows surgeons to manipulate tools from a computer workstation, leaving the actual surgery to the robotic arm," he says.

NeuroArm came to life through a unique partnership among medical, engineering and physics researchers as well as philanthropists, government organizations and the high-tech sector. Dr. Sutherland credits NRC and its spin-off company, IMRIS, for one of the major attributes of neuroArm: its capacity to integrate high-resolution real-time imaging of the brain during an operation.

Thanks to a combination of remarkable technologies, "NeuroArm" promises to dramatically increase surgical accuracy and safety.

Dr. Boguslaw Tomanek leads NRC's magnetic resonance (MR) team in Calgary. Several years ago, he and Dr. Scott King, who manages NRC's magnetic resonance prototyping facility in Winnipeg, began working with Dr. Sutherland on ways to combine MR imaging with robotics. He remembers early conversations with the visionary Dr. Sutherland who wondered whether surgeons — connected to a space mission by computer — could one day guide a surgical robot to operate on a sick astronaut orbiting in space. "Dr. Sutherland was extremely curious about technology, and was very open to new ideas," recalls Dr. Tomanek.

NRC's expertise in magnetic resonance imaging played a significant role in developing neuroArm. "Several years ago, we designed and made the prototype of the intraoperative MRI system now installed at Calgary's Foothills Hospital," says Dr. Tomanek. "That basic technology was commercialized by IMRIS, and many surgeons were trained to use it. The work to create the MRI-compatible robotic arm came out of this earlier work on imaging systems."

In the field of magnetic resonance imaging, NRC is known for its expertise in radio-frequency (RF) coils. "The coil creates the radio frequency field needed to image internal organs. Correct positioning, high image quality and orientation of the coil are critical as the magnet moves over the patient's brain, yet the coil cannot get in the way of the robotic arm," says Dr. Tomanek. "We had to design a dedicated RF coil to accommodate the robot's access to the brain."

In addition to designing a unique RF coil with access portals, NRC also guided research on the innovative materials required to make the robotic arm compatible with MRI scanning during surgery. "We performed a great deal of computational work to come up with an RF coil design and materials that would work properly together," says Dr. Tomanek. "And, given the requirements of the operating theatre, the coil had to be made of materials that could be regularly cleaned and sterilized."

At the unveiling event in April, Dr. Sutherland expressed his gratitude to the many top-notch researchers and other partners who helped make this remarkable tool a reality. And, showing his visionary spirit, he alluded to the potential to take it to the next level. "By incorporating advances in nanotechnology, molecular engineering and neuromodulation into the next generation of neuroArm, we will be able to enhance treatment outcomes even more."

NRC's contributions to the neuroArm aren't over yet — researchers in Boucherville are developing software for training on how to surgically manipulate biological tissues.

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