1 December 2020

Almost 2000 Australians are diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour each year1 and, tragically, it is the leading cause of cancer-related death among children. Professor Robert McLaughlin’s team at the University of Adelaide, with colleagues at The University of Western Australia, set out to better diagnose the specific type of tumours, which can benefit patients’ treatment options and outcomes.

With a PhD in Electronic Engineering and industry experience in medical devices research and development, Professor McLaughlin wanted to use his unique skills to see survival rates for brain cancer significantly improved.

“Neurosurgeons are wonderfully supportive of anything that will improve outcomes for their patients. Spending time in surgery with them, I realised that the technologies we work with could help them do their job more safely. In particular, we could help them do a smarter diagnosis.”

“Early trials showed promising results, with the smart biopsy needle able to detect blood vessels with a high sensitivity and specificity in a study on 11 patients undergoing brain surgery. This provides hope we can make brain surgery safer.”

One way of doing this is to perform a needle biopsy by taking a tissue sample, which involves inserting a large needle in the patient’s brain. Professor McLaughlin explained the danger associated with this method: “If the needle hits a blood vessel, then the patient can suffer a stroke which can cause irreversible damage or death”.

Funded by an NHMRC Development Grant, Professor McLaughlin and his team have developed a tiny imaging probe, the size of a human hair, and integrated it into a needle for use in brain biopsies.

Professor Robert McLaughlin

“If the needle hits a blood vessel, then the patient can suffer a stroke which can cause irreversible damage or death”.

“We created a ‘smart needle’ that has the ability to see where it is going. By integrating imaging technology used in eye and heart surgery with existing neurosurgical techniques, the device can detect blood vessels before damage is caused.”

At present, 1% of patients will die because of bleeds during a brain biopsy and 2–3% will be left permanently disabled, an unnecessary risk during surgery that Professor McLaughlin is working to change.

Next steps:

For the next phase, further NHMRC funding is supporting Professor McLaughlin and his team to develop the next generation smart brain biopsy needle for wider application. “The next generation needle has the ability to not only see delicate blood vessels in the brain, but also detect the cancer, allowing neurosurgeons to perform brain biopsies more accurately and in less time.”

Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: he University of Adelaide

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