A Vancouver neurosurgeon is the first in Canada to perform a new robotic laser surgery to treat patients with brain tumours, a technique he says could save lives.

"It's a very controlled, minimally invasive way to kill tumour cells," says Dr. Brian Toyota, a neurosurgeon at the Vancouver General Hospital and the B.C. Cancer Agency.

Treating operable brain tumours usually calls for craniotomy surgery, which requires a piece of the skull to be removed in order for the tumour to be cut out.

For tumours deep in the brain, radiation and chemotherapy is sometimes the only option for the patient.

The new laser methods inserts a probe through a 4.3 mm opening in the skull, which is then placed inside the tumour. Toyota then steps on a pedal, under MRI guidance, to turn the laser on and zap tumour cells.

"It's almost like a video game," says Toyota.

Dr. Brian Toyota

So far Dr. Brian Toyota is the only neurosurgeon in Canada who is performing the new laser surgery for brain tumours. (UBC)

First patients doing well

So far, he has performed the surgery on three patients. Two of them went home the next day. A third, who lives in Pemberton, opted to stay an extra day.

"That by itself was a huge gain on our traditional methods of brain surgery," says Toyota.

One patient had a tumour so deep in her brain that had it been removed traditionally, she would have been at risk of losing her vision. Had it not been for the new method she would have only been eligible for radiation and chemotherapy.

Toyota says he's still measuring the long-term outcomes of the patients, but so far they're all doing well and their tumours have been eradicated.

Costly treatment

The laser surgery is more common in the U.S., where Toyota says it's offered by about 20 different hospitals. In Canada, many provincial authorities are still reviewing the new method for its effectiveness.

One barrier for the surgery is the price: it costs more up-front than traditional methods.

"I like to think that I'm blazing the trail to help them prove the clinical benefit which will make the financial argument much easier," says Toyota.

Another benefit of the laser brain surgery is that it makes the brain more receptive to chemotherapy.

"The cures for cancers are incremental," says Toyota. "There's not that magic bullet that everyone's waiting to hear, and this is one more step."

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Vancouver neurosurgeon pioneering new laser surgery for brain tumours.