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Canadian robot melds brain surgery, rocket science

Posted on: 04/18/2007


Canadian robot melds brain surgery, rocket science

Last Updated: 2007-04-18 10:00:48 -0400 (Reuters Health)

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canadian scientists and engineers have developed a robot with a keen sense of touch that will let doctors perform microscopic operations on the brain using the most vivid visuals yet, they said on Tuesday.

A melding of brain surgery and rocket science, the neuroArm allows neurosurgeons to do their riskiest work on patients within a magnetic resonance imaging machine, or MRI, giving a clear 3-D picture of even the smallest nerves.

It is expected to be used in its first operation this summer at Calgary's Foothills Hospital, the site of the University of Calgary medical school's research facility.

The C$27 million ($24 million) robot was created in conjunction with the company that built a robotic arm called CanadArm for NASA space shuttles.

It will let doctors use surgical techniques diseases like brain tumors, which human surgeons are simply not dexterous enough to do, said Garnette Sutherland, a University of Calgary neurosurgeon who heads the project.

It is major step beyond the traditional view of just doctors and nurses operating on patients, he said.

"There's been tremendous collaboration, so we have now got in the operating room a whole host of engineers and scientists who are contributing to help make neurosurgery better," Sutherland told reporters as the robot, armed with surgical tools, fiddled with tiny objects behind him.

The neuroArm is controlled from a cockpit-like room, where the surgeon grasps handles that let him feel pressure and texture, preventing blood vessels and other tissue from being squeezed too hard during operations.

Years of training and practice give surgeons the steadiest hands, but they can not match the neuroArm, which can be adjusted to take away any unwanted movement.

That stands to lengthen the careers of neurosurgeons, who naturally become shakier with age, Sutherland said.

The operator watches through a stereoscopic viewer, which provides depth perception, and can glance at a large MRI picture on a nearby computer screen. A doctor can even hear the robot work with microphones located near the surgical instruments.

A touch-screen allows a 3-D graphic picture of the arms to be manipulated in any direction.

"The goal of this is to make difficult surgeries easier, or impossible surgeries possible," robotics engineer Alex Greer said as he demonstrated the controls.

Sutherland and his team will start clinical testing of the machine for Canadian health regulators in the coming weeks.

The long-term plan is to manufacture different versions of the neuroArm and sell them to other hospitals, although there is no detailed marketing plan in place yet, said Bruce Mack, vice-president of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the firm that also developed CanadArm.

($1=$1.13 Canadian)

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