Winnipeg duo wins $100K innovation award for brain surgery laser

Two Winnipeggers have won a top Canadian innovation award for their creation — a medical laser that zaps otherwise inoperable brain tumours.

Dr. Mark Torchia and engineer Richard Tyc developed NeuroBlate laser system

This image from Monteris Medical Inc. shows how the NeuroBlate laser system works in treating brain tumours. (Monteris Medical Inc.)

Two Winnipeggers have won a top Canadian innovation award for their creation — a medical laser that zaps otherwise inoperable brain tumours.

Dr. Mark Torchia teamed up with engineer Richard Tyc to develop the NeuroBlate, which helps surgeons eliminate tumours that would be difficult to reach with traditional surgical methods, in a minimally invasive way.

"The NeuroBlate is a system that is basically comprised of a laser probe that gets positioned into the brain tumour," said Torchia, who is an associate professor of surgery in the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine.

"Then while the patient's in a magnetic resonance imager, the surgeon applies laser energy to the tumour and watches it online while the tumour is being coagulated."

For their work, the pair has won the $100,000 Principal Award presented by the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation. They will receive the award at the foundation's 34th Innovation Awards Gala in Saskatoon on Friday.

"It really reinforces what this story has been and again reinforces the idea that we have developed technology that's really having an impact on patients' lives," Torchia said.

"I think to receive the award just kind of reaffirms that hey, we are really on to something here."

Work on the NeuroBlate dates back to 1990. Torchia said the idea started with a conversation with a co-worker in the cafeteria of St. Boniface Hospital, where he was working at the time.

"This is many, many years ago, when taking biopsies of the tumour had just started," he said.

"We said to each other, 'Well, you can take a biopsy of a tumour; why couldn't we do something through that same hole, through that same opening, and treat it?'"

Tyc recalled seeing the NeuroBlate in action for the first time, following years of development.

"I think the first time I saw that surgeon put his foot in the foot pedal in front of the laser, and he was watching [with] our software that we developed what was going on, it was rewarding, it was nerve-wracking … it was an exciting day," he said.

Not in Winnipeg hospitals so far

Tyc said today, there are NeuroBlates in more than 30 hospitals, mostly in the United States. The only Canadian site so far is in Vancouver.

"Our focus initially was into the U.S. because we felt that we could have a stronger impact there initially, and so we received regulatory approval for its launch in the U.S.," Torchia explained.

Torchia added that it took a number of years before the NeuroBlate received Health Canada approval, and the Vancouver site became operational this past January.

"It's really a timing thing," he said.

"I'm certainly hoping that at some point, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the Health Sciences Centre and the groups there will hear the successes that other centres have had and think about the possibilities of bringing this to Winnipeg."

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