Robotic technology removes brain tumour

On May 12, 2008 medical history was made at Foothills Medical Centre. Robotic technology was successfully used to remove a complex brain tumour.

Paige Nickason, a 21-year-old Calgary chef and mother, is now doing well thanks to the neuroArm, a groundbreaking surgical robotic system developed by a team led by Dr. Garnette Sutherland, a professor of neurosurgery in the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine.

The neuroArm is the world’s first surgical robot that is compatible with Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It can perform both microsurgery and image-guided biopsy, with more precision and delicacy than a human hand could ever provide. The system is controlled by a surgeon at a computer workstation. The technology also allows an MRI scanner to move in the operating room on demand, allowing continuous imaging during the surgical procedure.

“It is all about synergy,” said Sutherland. “When you combine a human’s decision making and a machine’s precision, you get extraordinary results.”

The neuroArm provides significant advantages to both surgeons and patients at a level even its maker did not fully foresee.

“We [initially] only wanted to take images in the operating room,” said Sutherland. “Now, the neuroArm is able to perform real-time surgery while real-time imaging is taking place. It has much more capability than the initial design.”

The neuroArm’s exceptional capabilities have created a media frenzy around the globe. From local newspapers to internationally acclaimed scientific magazines, over 300,000 articles were generated following the success of the neuroArm surgery.

“Science can be in the science domain; the regular person doesn’t know about it. If something is moved to the public domain, lots of people know about it. And the neuroArm has entered the public domain fairly quickly,” said Sutherland.

Sutherland said his motivation for his project was “to make someone better.” With innovations like the neuroArm the future of biomedical engineering is indeed promising. Dr. Sutherland believes robotic surgery will inevitably enter the public.

Sutherland will now continue project neuroArm by improving the robot’s sense of touch and vision. He hopes that new and improved generations of the machine will be built in the near future, benefitting more and more patients.

Sutherland joined the University of Calgary as a professor of neurosurgery in 1993 and served as division head for 10 years.

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