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Surgical systems

Calgary makes breakthrough in MRI-guided surgery

CALGARY – Surgery is about to change with the introduction of a new surgical robotic system at the Calgary Health Region and University of Calgary. NeuroArm aims to revolutionize neurosurgery and other branches of operative medicine by liberating them from the constraints of the human hand.

It’s said to be the first ‘robotic system’ allowing surgeons to operate while the patient is inside an MR scanner. The MRI guidance enables the surgeon to obtain a more accurate view of structures inside the body, while the robot can work with greater precision than the human hand.

The MRI-compatible surgical robot is the creation of neurosurgeon Dr. Garnette Sutherland and his team. Dr. Sutherland has spent the last six years leading a team of Canadian scientists to design a machine ‘that represents a milestone in medical technology.’

“Many of our microsurgical techniques evolved in the 1960s, and have pushed surgeons to the limits of their precision, accuracy, dexterity and stamina,” says Dr. Sutherland, professor of neurosurgery, University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine and the Calgary Health Region.

“NeuroArm dramatically enhances the spatial resolution at which surgeons operate, and shifts surgery from the organ towards the cell level.”

Designed to be controlled by a surgeon from a computer workstation, neuroArm operates in conjunction with real-time MR imaging, providing surgeons unprecedented detail and control, enabling them to manipulate tools at a microscopic scale. Advanced surgical testing of neuroArm is currently under way, and the participation of patients is expected to occur this summer.

“The Calgary Health Region considers the introduction of the neuroArm a historic moment in our ability to provide unprecedented care and safety to patients in Alberta,” says Jack Davis, Calgary Health Region’s Chief Executive Officer and President. “We are extremely proud to be a partner in neuroArm and to have worked with such a dedicated team of individuals and funding partners.

“Bringing neuroArm to life required a unique partnership between medicine, engineering, physics, and education; some of Calgary’s most visionary philanthropists; the high-tech sector, and numerous government agencies and research funding organizations.

“This unprecedented collaboration is a direct result of Calgary’s optimistic and entrepreneurial community spirit,” says Dr. Sutherland. “It’s no accident a project like this is coming out of Calgary. Our community believes in innovation and supporting challenging projects.”

The project began in 2001 when the namesakes of the Seaman Family MR Research Centre, Calgary philanthropists, oilpatch pioneers and brothers Doc, B.J. and Don Seaman provided $2 million to begin planning neuroArm.

“As engineers, the technology involved in neuroArm intrigued us from the start. We really understood the challenges and appreciated the brilliance that had to go into it,” Doc Seaman says. The family realized that a project like neuroArm would place Calgary on the leading-edge of surgery worldwide.

“The best surgeons in the world can work within an eighth of an inch. NeuroArm makes it possible for surgeons to work accurately within the width of a hair,” Doc Seaman says. “This will put us on the world stage and will help attract more top people in medicine and surgery, which will benefit the university and the community as a whole.”

The Seaman family’s donation, combined with funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada, allowed for detailed planning and design of the project. That set the stage for substantial support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the National Research Council of Canada, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology, Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and additional philanthropists to build the one-of-a-kind machine and create a comprehensive medical robotics program.

A global search for robotics expertise led Sutherland to MDA, a perfect fit for neuroArm because of the company’s background in creating specialized space robots, used aboard NASA space shuttles and the International Space Station.

“NeuroArm is a great fit for us, allowing us to apply our world-renowned space solutions to medical applications that will benefit patients here on Earth,” says Bruce Mack, vice-president of development programs of MDA’s Brampton operations. “The combination of our remote operation and sensory information expertise, coupled with our manipulation technologies, will enable improved decision making and performance in the operating theatre.”

“Building a robot is complex to begin with. Adding the constraints of operating in a sterile operating room, within an MRI machine and alongside the other people involved in surgery makes it a very complex environment,” says the project’s robotics engineer Alex Greer. By acquiring first-hand knowledge of the demands in the operating room, Greer and Paul McBeth, the first U of C neuroArm robotics engineer, acted as the bridge between the physicians, scientists and engineers involved in the project. “Doctors and engineers are good at what they do but they speak different languages,” Greer says. “Translating surgical requirements into technical terms can be a challenge.”

When the project began, engineers from MDA traveled to Calgary and worked with surgeons for several weeks to define the requirements necessary for the successful design of neuroArm.

Sutherland’s team is developing specialized training programs in partnership with the Calgary Health Region, and U of C’s faculties of medicine and education to train surgeons in the use of neuroArm. Many other surgical disciplines have and continue to participate in applying neuroArm to various types of surgical procedures. “We’re not just building a robot, we’re building a medical robotics program,” Dr. Sutherland says.