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Seeing ahead for safer brain surgery

Photo credit: University of Adelaide

Professor Robert McLaughlin

University of Western Australia/University of Adelaide

2014 | $317,111
2012 | $539,685

Is a fibre-optic ‘smart needle’ camera the size of a human hair the key to safer brain surgery? 

With more than 1900 Australians diagnosed with brain tumours each year and approximately 1400 deaths1, University of Adelaide’s Professor Robert McLaughlin and his team believe this device is a game changer—not just in neurosurgery—but potentially for all types of surgeries.

Professor McLaughlin, now working with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, developed this world-first tiny imaging tool to fit inside a surgical needle probe used in brain biopsies.

‘We’re giving neurosurgeons the ability to see blood vessels before they hit them and cause serious damage,’ Professor McLaughlin explained.

‘For about two to three per cent of patients undergoing brain biopsies, the current needles can cause significant damage from bleeding, possibly leaving them disabled, and in about one per cent of cases the patient can die.’

Professor McLaughlin and colleagues at the University of Western Australia and University of Adelaide initially developed the technology for use in breast cancer surgery before realising its potential in brain surgery.

‘Neurosurgery is an incredible place for us to really understand how this device can make a difference because there is a real push from the surgeons to have these sorts of tools,’ he said.

‘This breakthrough will make brain biopsies safer. But we’re realising that the same technology can be used in many other forms of neurosurgery, such as deep brain stimulation, where electrodes are inserted into the brain to treat Parkinson’s disease—we believe we can help make that safer too.

‘The truth is, surgeons can hit blood vessels in many parts of the body, therefore once we’ve established this in neurosurgery we can look at rolling this out to other types of surgery,’ he added.

The first human clinical trials started in 2016, working with neurosurgeon Professor Christopher Lind at the QEII Medical Centre, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and University of Western Australia.

‘Professor Lind was able to see how we could design a trial that presented minimal risk to the patients, only working with areas of the brain that needed to be removed because of the tumours. He provided the missing piece to get us to human trials,’ said Professor McLaughlin.

‘Having taken this into humans has really allowed us to show the impact it will have.’

‘The NHMRC Development Grants helped to take us from raw engineering technology through to making it work in a clinical scenario,’ he added.

This type of NHMRC grant provides financial support to individual researchers and/or research teams to undertake health and medical research at the proof-of-concept stage that specifically drives towards a commercial outcome within a foreseeable timeframe. It also supports commercial development of a product, process, procedure or service that, if applied, would result in improved health care, disease prevention or provide health cost savings.

Due to the successful human trials, Professor McLaughlin can now start conversations with medical device companies across the globe.

‘However, having the expertise means we are very well-positioned to manufacture here in Australia,’ he explained.

‘I think this will have a great economic impact in Australia. It’s high-tech, high-value and it’s small, which means we can ship it to anywhere in the world.’

‘Not only will this make brain surgery safer, but we estimate that the potential market size is over $200 million world-wide.’

‘The next steps are to incorporate the lessons we’ve learnt from the human trial, and then take it through regulatory approval so that hospitals worldwide can make this the standard of care for patients.’

Video source: YouTube - CentreForNanoscale BioPhotonics

1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Cancer in Australia: an overview 2014. Cancer series No 90. Cat. no. CAN 88. Canberra: AIHW