The eye of the needle

 Image courtesy: ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics

Image courtesy: ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics

Researchers at The University of Adelaide have developed a breakthrough tool for use in brain surgery—a needle with a tiny camera inside, that enables surgeons to ‘see’ blood vessels. Blood vessels once spotted can then be avoided, to prevent the risk of dangerous bleeding during surgery.

“Sitting in surgery, watching the neurosurgeons work, I realised that we could make brain surgery safer,” said Professor Robert McLaughlin, Chair of Biophotonics, at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonicswhich is administered by The University of Adelaide. “It’s like a tiny flashlight the size of a human hair, that allows the surgeon to see inside the brain.”

Professor McLaughlin received Australian Government funding of $355,100 through the ARC’s Discovery Projects scheme to undertake research to develop a single, miniaturised probe with multiple optical imaging technologies. Using these probes, surgeons will be able to carefully preserve sensitive tissue while accessing the site of an operation, and this is expected to open up exciting new possibilities in neurosurgery.

To realise the outcome, Professor McLaughlin collaborated with Professor Christopher Lind, Consultant Neurosurgeon at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and The University of Western Australia.  Professor Lind, who led the first pilot trials in the use of the needle on 12 patients undergoing neurosurgery at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, described the needle as a medical breakthrough.

“It will open the way for safer surgery, allowing us to do things we’ve not been able to do before,” Professor Lind said.

Speaking during a visit to the Adelaide laboratory where the needle was developed, Minister for Education and Training, Senator The Hon. Simon Birmingham, said the Turnbull Government had committed $23 million through the ARC to encourage vital research discoveries at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics.

"This smart biopsy device is an outstanding example of how our investment in research can translate into real benefits for industries and ultimately for Australians. Professors McLaughlin and Lind are improving lives and are exemplars of Australian ingenuity who are leading the world as innovators in medical technology," Minister Birmingham said.

“This research has a lot of economic potential. The medical device industry is worth $220 billion annually,” said Professor McLaughlin. “The smart needle is an ideal technology to commercialise in Australia. We have the engineering expertise and world-class hospitals here, and enthusiasm from the surgeons.”

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics is a collaborative program with research focussed within nodes at The University of Adelaide, Macquarie University and RMIT University. The centre was established with seven years of funding, totalling $23 million, in the 2014 round of the ARC Centres of Excellence scheme. Research at the centre demonstrates the enormous benefits that can be realised through ongoing collaboration between researchers and industry.