April 10 - Surgeons may soon have a new tool for treating patients with dangerous blood clots in the brain - a robotic needle that will suck the clot free without harming healthy tissue around it. As Ben Gruber reports, the robot's developers are taking a novel approach to replicating the human brain for their experiments.
It's a popular desert made from gelatin, but for scientists at Vanderbilt University, it's also proving to be the ideal medium for testing a highly sophisticated robot, a steerable needle called the Active Cannula. The needle is designed to navigate through the brain to reach and remove potentially fatal blood clots, leaving the surrounding tissue intact. Engineer Robert Webster says he was inspired to design the steerable needle, when his father developed a brain clot. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ROBERT WEBSTER, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "I was interested in that medical problem because of that and he was lucky, he was one of the ones that survived and didn't have brain damage." But according to neurosurgeon Kyle Weaver many people aren't so lucky. Diseases like hypertension and diabetes that are associated with blood clots, are on the rise and Weaver says that currently 1 in 50 people will develop a clot in their lifetime and of those, 40 percent will either die or develop brain damage. And once a blood clot forms in the brain, Weaver says there is very little a surgeon can do to remove it. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KYLE WEAVER, NEUROSURGEON, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Often times based on the anatomy and the way the blood vessels are configured and these disease processes, they are often times deep down in the brain. And the thought is that getting those is that the surgery is actually going to do more damage than the blood clot is on its own." That's where the needle robot comes in. It comprises a series of curved flexible metal tubes controlled by a computer. Webster says that neurosurgeons will be able to scan a patient's brain and the computer will then map the most efficient route to the clot while using its flexible tubes to navigate around delicate brain matter. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ROBERT WEBSTER, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Then the doctor would just hit go and the robot would do that. It would remove all of the stuff inside the boundary that the doctor drew and nothing else that is outside the boundary." Webster says his team is looking into other tools that could attach to the robot such as an ultrasonic tip or a tiny grasper that will break up the clot before suctioning it out. Kyle Weaver says that type of additional ability could have a huge impact on the way neurosurgeons deal with brain tumours in hard to reach places as well. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KYLE WEAVER, NEUROSURGEON, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "There a lots of nooks and crannies and airspace's, meaning the sinuses at the base of the brain and there a number of ways that we can navigate through the head, if you will, to get to these deep seeded tumours around very important structures. But the problem is that the corridor or the space that we operate through is very small so, it limits our ability to introduce or use the common tools." Webster says there are still many trials and a long regulatory process ahead, before his robot needles debut in operating rooms, but he is confident that when they do, they will save lives.