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Surgical IT

Halifax doctors perform simulated brain surgery

HALIFAX – Dr. David Clarke (pictured), a Halifax neurosurgeon, has used Canadian-developed technology to perform the world’s first simulated brain operation on a patient a day before removing her actual tumour.

Dr. Clarke used a virtual model of Ellen Wright’s brain to remove a simulated benign tumour before removing the actual tumour the following morning.

“It looks like the real thing and it feels like the real thing, and all of that is specific to the patient you’re about to operate on,” Clarke said of the procedure, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

“So when we’re removing the tumour, it’s really Ellen’s tumour we’re removing. Imagine if your pilot simulated your flight before you took it. That’s what we’re talking about here.”

Dr. Clarke is a professor of neurosurgery at Dalhousie Medical School, staff neurosurgeon at Capital Health, member of the Brain Repair Centre, and collaborator in the National Research Council (NRC) project.

The simulator is part of a three-year project in partnership with the National Research Council that will see a team of about 50 people from 10 centres across Canada change the face of brain surgery.

The system makes use of highly developed haptic hardware that allows a user to move and touch virtual objects. Integrated software makes the virtual tissue behave as it would in actual surgery. “I feel the resistance of the tumour as I remove it,” Clarke said of the simulator. “I feel the tip of the instrument vibrating, and so it gives that very real feeling.”

It cost $10 million to develop the simulator, which the team hopes to sell to hospitals, clinics and schools worldwide.

Dr. Ryan D’Arcy, a neuroscientist who worked on the development of the device, said the simulation is modelled after a specific patient before the operation, is realistic in looks and even touch, and uses the same instruments as the actual procedure.

“To create the simulator we take the patient and acquire a large amount of high-quality (MRI) images of not only the structure, but also images of the functions, so critical (brain) areas like motor or speech,” D’Arcy said.

“Then a team – through complex mathematics and engineering – creates a device that allows you to see in three dimensions, so you have a realistic environment where the brain pulsates and bleeds. But you also can feel it, so when you actually interact with the (real) brain, you know what it feels like.”

It has taken 18 months to develop the simulator, and at the end of the three-year project, D’Arcy hopes seven such machines will be established in Canadian centres.

Posted Aug. 27/09.