Robotic arms lend a healing touch

The delicate touch that successfully removed an egg-shaped tumour from Paige Nickason’s brain got a helping hand from a world-renowned arm—a robotic arm, that is. The technology that went into developing neuroArm, the world’s first robot capable of performing surgery inside magnetic resonance machines, was born from the Canadarm (developed by advanced robotics company MDA for the U.S. Space Shuttle Program), as well as Canadarm2 and Dextre, the Canadian Space Agency’s family of space robots performing the heavy-lifting and maintenance on board the International Space Station.

The neuroArm development began with the search for a solution to a surgical dilemma: how to make difficult surgeries easier or impossible surgeries possible. MDA worked with a team led by Dr. Garnette Sutherland at the University of Calgary to develop a highly precise robotic arm that works in conjunction with the advanced imaging capabilities of MRI systems. Surgeons needed to be able to perform surgeries while a patient was inside a magnetic resonance (MRI) machine, which meant designing a robot that was as dexterous as the human hand, but even more precise and tremor-free. Operating inside the MRI also meant it had to be entirely made from non-magnetic materials (for instance, no steel) so that it would not be affected by the magnetic field or adversely affect the MRI’s images. The project team developed novel ways to control the robot’s movements and give the operator a sense of touch—both essential so that the surgeon can precisely control the robot and can feel what is happening during the surgery.

Since Paige Nickason’s surgery in 2008, neuroArm has been used to successfully treat dozens more patients. The technology has since been purchased by IMRIS Inc. a private publicly traded medical device manufacturer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. MDA and IMRIS are advancing the design to commercialize a two-armed version of the system to allow surgeons to see detailed three-dimensional images of the brain, as well as surgical tools and hand controllers that allow the surgeon to feel tissue and apply pressure when they operate. A clinical trial led by Dr. Sutherland is currently underway at Calgary’s Foothills hospital using the first generation of the robot on a group of 120 patients. IMRIS anticipates being in a position to seek regulatory approval for the robot as early as 2012.

MDA is also continuing to apply its space technologies and know-how to medical solutions for life on Earth. The company has partnered with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to collaborate on the design and development of an advanced technology solution for paediatric surgery. Dubbed KidsArm, the sophisticated tele-operated surgical system is being specifically designed for operating on small children and babies. KidsArm is intended to be used by surgeons, in conjunction with a high precision real-time imaging technology, to reconnect delicate vessels such as veins, arteries, or intestines.

In collaboration with The Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation in Hamilton, Ontario, MDA is also developing an advanced platform for use in early detection and treatment of breast cancer. The image-guided autonomous robot will provide increased access, precision and dexterity, resulting in more accurate and less invasive procedures.


Photo credit: Jason Stang