University of Calgary


Navigating the future of surgery

By Grady Semmens

Surgery is about to change with the introduction of a new surgical robotic system at the University of Calgary and Calgary Health Region. NeuroArm aims to revolutionize neurosurgery and other branches of operative medicine by liberating them from the constraints of the human hand.
The world’s first MRI-compatible surgical robot is the brainchild of neurosurgeon Dr. Garnette Sutherland and his team. Sutherland has spent the last six years leading a team of Canadian scientists, in cooperation with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), to create a machine “that represents a milestone in medical technology.”

“Many of our microsurgical techniques evolved in the 1960s, and have pushed surgeons towards the limits of their precision, accuracy, dexterity and stamina,” says Sutherland, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine and the Calgary Health Region. “NeuroArm dramatically enhances the spatial resolution at which surgeons operate, and shifts surgery from the organ to the cell level.”

Designed to be controlled by a surgeon from a computer workstation, neuroArm operates in conjunction with real-time MR imaging, providing surgeons unprecedented detail and control, enabling them to manipulate tools at a microscopic scale. Advanced surgical testing of neuroArm is currently underway, to be followed by the first patient, anticipated for this summer.

“The launch of neuroArm places the U of C and the Calgary Health Region at the forefront of the emerging field of biomedical engineering, and establishes Canada’s leadership role in image-guided robotic surgery,” says U of C President Dr. Harvey Weingarten.

“The Calgary Health Region considers the introduction of the neuroArm an historic moment in our ability to provide unprecedented care and safety to patients in Alberta,” says the Calgary Health Region’s Chief Executive Officer and President Jack Davis.
NeuroArm, one of the most advanced robotic systems ever developed, was designed and built in collaboration with MDA, known for creating Canadarm and Canadarm2. Bringing neuroArm to life required a unique partnership between medicine, engineering, physics, and education, some of Calgary’s most visionary philanthropists, the high-tech sector, and numerous government agencies and research funding organizations. “This unprecedented collaboration is a direct result of Calgary’s optimistic and entrepreneurial community spirit,” says Sutherland. “It’s no accident a project like this is coming out of Calgary. Our community believes in innovation and supporting challenging projects.”

The project began in 2001 when the namesakes of the Seaman Family MR Research Centre, Calgary philanthropists, oilpatch pioneers and brothers Doc, B.J. and Don Seaman provided $2 million to begin planning neuroArm. Their contribution was a natural extension of their support for the research centre that began with the development of the world’s first intraoperative MRI scanner based on a movable high-field magnet.

“As engineers, the technology involved in neuroArm intrigued us from the start. We really understood the challenges and appreciated the brilliance that had to go into it,” Doc Seaman says. The family realized that a project like neuroArm would place Calgary on the leading edge of surgery worldwide.

“The best surgeons in the world can work within an eighth of an inch. NeuroArm makes it possible for surgeons to work accurately within the width of a hair,” Seaman says. “This will put us on the world stage and will help attract more top people in medicine and surgery, which will benefit the university and the community as a whole.”

The Seaman family’s donation, combined with funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada, allowed for detailed planning and design of the project. That set the stage for substantial support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the National Research Council of Canada, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology, Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and additional philanthropists to build the one-of-a-kind machine and create a comprehensive medical robotics program.

A global search for robotics expertise led Sutherland to MDA, a perfect fit for neuroArm because of the company’s background in creating specialized space robots, used aboard NASA space shuttles and the International Space Station.

“NeuroArm is a great fit for us, allowing us to apply our world-renowned space solutions to medical applications that will benefit patients here on Earth,” says Bruce Mack, vice-president of development programs of MDA’s Brampton operations.

Sutherland’s team is developing specialized training programs in partnership with the Calgary Health Region, and U of C’s faculties of Medicine and Education to train surgeons in the use of neuroArm. Many other surgical disciplines have and continue to participate in applying neuroArm to various types of surgical procedures.

“We’re not just building a robot, we’re building a medical robotics program,” Sutherland says. “We want the neuroArm technology to be translated into the global community, i.e. hospitals around the world,” he says. “To accomplish this, we will need our students and young professionals—because they’re the powerhouse when it comes to embracing new technology and applying it to clinical care.”