Technology & Science

Image-guided robot called a surgical 'milestone'

A guided surgical robot that provides magnetic resonance images of the brain was unveiled in Calgary on Tuesday, where researchers called it a milestone in medical technology.

A surgical robot that provides magnetic resonance images of the brain wasintroduced in Calgary on Tuesday, where researchers called it a "milestone in medical technology."

A surgeon controls the NeuroArm using levers at a computer workstation in a room next to the surgery.

The technology works in conjunction with real-time MRI to provide surgeons with unprecedented detail and the control to manipulate tools at a microscopic scale for operations ranging from repairs of blood vessels to removal of a brain tumour.

The robot's two mechanical hands mimic the movements of the surgeon with incredible precision, while sensors and microphones recreate the sights, sounds and touch of surgery, said Dr. Garnette Sutherland, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Calgary who ledthe team that designed the device.

"The surgeon is also seeing the MR image and his or her tools entering that image," Sutherland said. "So the surgeon is able or provided with a tremendous amount of vision from the operative site."

Microsurgical techniques that evolved in the 1960s have pushed surgeons to the limits of their precision, accuracy, dexterity and stamina, Sutherland said, with the world's best surgeons working at tolerances within three millimetres.

Sutherlandremoved a benign brain tumour from Tracy Durfy, 36, using conventional surgery. The night before the operation, Durfy said she held her daughter's hand.

"I have to come home to her and my husband," Durfy recalled. "I thought to myself, 'You know, I sure hope Dr. Sutherland doesn't sneeze,'" she said with a laugh.

Robotic technology

NeuroArm has the potential to reduce those concerns. The robotic technology makes it possible for surgeons to work accurately within the width of a hair, said philanthropist Doc Seaman, whose family provided $2 million for the planning of NeuroArm.

The arm was designed and built in collaboration with engineers at MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, known for creating Canadarm and Canadarm2 for NASA.

"In space, basically you're not allowed accidents, and in medicine you're not allowed accidents," said Bruce Mack, vice-president of development programs of MDA's operations in Brampton, Ont.

The NeuroArm is now moving out of development, and the first human surgery testingwith the deviceis expected in twoto three months. There is already interest in adapting the technology for a wider variety of surgeries.

Funding for the $27 million device also cameWestern Economic Diversification Canada,Canada Foundation for Innovation, the National Research Council of Canada, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology, Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and otherphilanthropists.

With files from the Canadian Press