May 20, 2009

The University of Calgary made headlines around the world last May when a local woman had a complex brain tumour successfully removed using the delicate touch of a robotic arm.

Controlling what is called the neuroArm from a computer workstation, in conjunction with an MRI, neurosurgeon Garnette Sutherland removed a benign tumour from 21-year-old Paige Nickason. The high-tech system allows for the minimally invasive procedures and pinpoint accuracy required in brain surgery.

But behind the groundbreaking surgery — a procedure since repeated five times and counting — was a decade of preparation, says neuroArm project leader Sutherland. He cites perseverance as key to bringing the neuroArm to the operating room. “It required considerable collaboration between engineering, medicine, nursing, physicists and hospital planning and development,” says Sutherland. Add multiple funding partnerships, negotiations with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (known for building Canadarm and Canadarm2) and regulatory agency approvals, and it is clear how much more was behind the headlines.

The neuroArm is now being integrated into more procedures and applied to other surgical subspecialties. The university is also developing new research space where physicians, engineers and physicists can all work together.

“We anticipate an ever-increasing number of cases,” says Sutherland. “In this productive environment, neuroArm 2, 3, 4, and so on, will evolve.”