News Feature | January 24, 2017

New ‘Smart Needle' Guides Surgeons Through Safer Brain Surgeries

By Suzanne Hodsden

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Novel needle technology developed at the University of Adelaide (UA) uses a tiny fiber optic camera and infrared light to guide neurosurgeons through dangerous procedures. Computer software connected to the needle can recognize blood vessels and alert the surgeon, preventing a potentially life-threatening bleed.

By miniaturizing electronics and camera technology, researchers have opened up new possibilities for more precise diagnostics and surgeries. German scientists recently introduced a 3D-printed camera small enough to be injected into the body through a syringe. Avinger announced FDA clearance for its latest generation of medical imaging technology, which allows clinicians to visualize the inside of blood vessels. Sensors embedded in the tip of needles developed by Injeq can identify different tissue and fluid types.

The Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council, and the South Australian government have invested $23 million (AUS) into biophotonic research through 2021, according to a press release. This investment partially funded the “smart needle” developed by Robert McLaughlin, chair of biophotonics at UA, and neurosurgeon Christopher Lind.

“The problem is if you put a biopsy needle in someone’s brain, if you hit a blood vessel, you can kill them,” explained Robert McLaughlin, in a YouTube video explaining the research. “We’ve managed to make a tiny camera and fit it inside a brain biopsy needle. It’s the size of a human hair shining infrared light and allows the surgeons to see blood vessels before they get damaged.”

According to McLaughlin, computer software connected to the needle can recognize the blood vessels and send alerts to the surgeon. McLaughlin and Lind recently tested the technology in a pilot trial on twelve patients undergoing neurosurgery at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Western Australia.

Lind led the pilot study and noted that the technology would “revolutionize neurosurgery. It will open the way for safer surgery, allowing us to do things we’ve not been able to do before.”

Education and Training Minister Senator Simon Birmingham called the needle a “research breakthrough” and an “outstanding example of how our investment in research can translate into real benefits for industries.”

Scientists plan to conduct a formal clinical trial with the technology in 2018 and are currently in talks with several international medical device manufacturers.

Related, Philips recently announced a new augmented-reality surgical navigation system, which can guide surgeons through spine, cranial and trauma surgeries using a combination of 3D X-rays and optical imaging. By using an imaging system during an operation in real time, surgeons are able to accomplish these procedures with minimally invasive tools.