Scientists have developed a new robot which could help in surgery to relieve the damaging pressure caused by hemorrhaging in the brain.
That is the basic premise of a new image-guided surgical system under development at Vanderbilt University.
It employs steerable needles about the size of those used for biopsies to penetrate the brain with minimal damage and suction away the blood clot that has formed.
It is the product of an ongoing collaboration between a team of engineers and physicians headed by Assistant Professor Robert J. Webster III and Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery Kyle Weaver.
The odds of a person getting an intracerebral hemorrhage are one in 50 over his or her lifetime. When it does occur, 40 percent of the individuals die within a month. Many of the survivors have serious brain damage.
Operations to "debulk" intracerebral hemorrhages are not popular among neurosurgeons: They know their efforts are not likely to make a difference, except when the clots are small and lie on the brain's surface where they are easy to reach.
Surgeons generally agree that there is a clinical benefit from removing 25-50 percent of a clot but that benefit can be offset by the damage that is done to the surrounding tissue when the clot is removed.
For the last four years, Webster's team has been developing a steerable needle system for "transnasal" surgery: operations to remove tumors in the pituitary gland and at the skull base that traditionally involve cutting large openings in a patient's skull and/or face.
Studies have shown that using an endoscope to go through the nasal cavity is less traumatic, but the procedure is so difficult that only a handful of surgeons have mastered it.
Last summer, Webster attended a conference in Italy where one of the speakers, Marc Simard, a neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, ran through his wish list of useful imaginary neurosurgical devices, hoping that some engineer in the audience might one day be able to build one of them.
When he described his wish to have a needle-sized robot arm to reach deep into the brain to remove clots, Webster couldn't help smiling because the steerable needle system he had been developing was perfect for the job.
Webster's design, which he calls an active cannula, consists of a series of thin, nested tubes. Each tube has a different intrinsic curvature.
By precisely rotating, extending and retracting these tubes, an operator can steer the tip in different directions, allowing it to follow a curving path through the body.
The single needle system required for removing brain clots was actually much simpler than the multi-needle transnasal system.
The surgeon positions the robot so it can insert the straight outer tube through the trajectory stem and into the brain. He also selects the small inner tube with the curvature that best matches the size and shape of the clot, attaches a suction pump to its external end and places it in the outer tube.
Guided by the CT scan, the robot inserts the outer tube into the brain until it reaches the outer surface of the clot. Then it extends the curved, inner tube into the clot's interior. The pump is turned on and the tube begins acting like a tiny vacuum cleaner, sucking out the material.
The robot moves the tip around the interior of the clot, controlling its motion by rotating, extending and retracting the tubes.
According to the feasibility studies the researchers have performed, the robot can remove up to 92 percent of simulated blood clots.
The research is set to be published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.