Manitoba

Manitoba brain laser inventors win Governor General's Innovation Award

Canada’s Governor General has awarded two researchers with ties to the University of Manitoba for their work developing the NeuroBlate system. Former graduate students, Dr. Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc, received the inaugural Governor General's Innovation Awards for developing the brain laser technology.

Dr. Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc's NeuroBlate destroys cancerous tumours from the inside out

Dr. Richard Tyc (left) and Dr. Mark Torchia won the Governor General's Innovation Award for developing the NeuroBlate brain laser technology. (Supplied)

Canada's Governor General has awarded two researchers with ties to the University of Manitoba for their work developing the NeuroBlate system.

Former graduate students, Dr. Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc, received the inaugural Governor General's Innovation Award for developing the brain laser technology.

Torchia, who remains a professor at the university, described it as an overwhelming honour after decades spent developing the technology.

"We recognize and greatly appreciate all the support we received from St-Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre, the University of Manitoba, our talented colleagues, inventors, and not the least, our dear families. We also give our thanks to the patients and their families that have acted so selflessly to help so many others. It is truly humbling and gratifying."

How it works

The NeuroBlate system allows brain surgeons to destroy inoperable tumours deep inside the brain. Essentially it allows health-care providers to "cook" a cancerous brain tumour while protecting the healthy tissue surrounding it.

Doctors first review images of a patient's brain taken during diagnostic tests, and then chart the best path toward lesions or tumours with the device, which is "about the width of a pencil lead."

Then, on the big day, a surgeon drills a small hole in the patient's skull before placing the patient into a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.
This image from Monteris Medical Inc. shows how the NeuroBlate laser system works in treating brain tumours. (Monteris Medical Inc.)
The "long, skinny, polymer probe with a sapphire tip on it" tunnels into the brain, and with precise care, the surgeon blasts the tumour into oblivion.

"All this is done in real time, so that the surgeon can actually see what's happening to the tissue and be able to stop the laser when it's getting too close to tissue they don't want to treat," Torchia said.

"Some people have referred to it as a digital scalpel; I'm not entirely sure that's entirely accurate, but it's really a complex system of lasers and computers."

Less invasive

One of the big selling points about the probe-laser technology is that the process is far less invasive than traditional tumour surgeries. Being able to watch the whole process unfold on a computer screen is also a step up from conventional methods, Torchia said.

Another added bonus is that patient recovery time is a lot shorter. 

"These patients are leaving hospital much, much faster; they're returning to work much, much faster than they have ever been."

More than 800 surgeries have been performed on 35 machines across North America so far, and that number has been rising steadily over the past 18 months.

"Like many of these technologies, it's a very conservative field. Neurosurgeons aren't about to just poke anything into people's brains, so it takes a while for it to catch on," Torchia said.

Vancouver General Hospital has one of the devices, but despite the fact the technology was developed in Winnipeg, Manitoba doesn't yet have one. Torchia said it's only a matter of time.

Past awards

The duo also received $100,000 as part of the Ernest C. Manning Principal Award in 2015 for developing the technology.

David T. Barnard, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba, said the school is proud of both Torchia and Tyc.

"Their life-saving technology is transforming neurosurgery around the globe and all Manitobans should be proud of the groundbreaking research and development being done at the St-Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre, a long-time research partner of the university's," he is quoted as saying in the news release.

With files from CBC's Leif Larsen

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