Health & Biotech

Smart needle for safer and more effective brain surgery

Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham tests the smart needle

Over 1,600 Australians are diagnosed with brain tumours each year, being the leading cause of cancer-related death in children and in adults over the age of 65. Brain tumours have a low survival rate, with less than half of the patients surviving one year of diagnosis, and only 22% of patients surviving 5 years.

A common part of diagnosis is to perform a needle biopsy, which involves inserting a large needle into the patient’s brain to remove a sample of the tumour. If the needle damages a blood vessel, this can cause a stroke for the patient. 2%-3% of patients undergoing brain biopsy will suffer long-term disability, and 1% will die.

IPAS member and ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics Senior Investigator Prof Robert McLaughlin and his team have developed a revolutionary new medical device that will make neurosurgery safer.

A tiny imaging probe, encased within a brain biopsy needle, lets surgeons ‘see’ at-risk blood vessels as they insert the needle, allowing them to avoid causing bleeds that can potentially be fatal.

The device contains a tiny fibre-optic camera, the size of a human hair, shining infrared light and allowing the needle to see where it is going. This is combined with smart image processing software to detect vessels and alert the surgeon before the vessels are damaged.

The smart needle has been developed in collaboration with future end-users, clinicians from Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. In 2016, Professor Christopher Lind, Consultant Neurosurgeon, successfully demonstrated the smart needle in a pilot trial with 12 patients undergoing neurosurgery.

This is the first demonstration in human neurosurgery of a smart needle that enables safer brain surgery. Beyond brain biopsies, this technology has direct applications in other forms of neurosurgery, such as deep brain stimulation where electrode needles are inserted into a patient’s brain to alleviate the symptoms of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

The team is now exploring other applications for their ‘smart needle’ technology, both in the biotech and industrial space while working on the next generation of multi-function imaging probes.

As highlighted in the Australian Research Council recent publication Making a difference, Understanding our world and translating fundamental research, “The ‘smart needle’ is an outstanding example of how ARC-funded research can translate into real world benefits—in this case, commercially for the medical technology industry and, ultimately, improved health services for Australians”.


Optical fibre sensing to aid breast cancer research

Dr Erik Shartner testing samples with ph sensor

An IPAS research team led by Dr Erik Schartner has developed an optical fibre probe that distinguishes breast cancer tissue from normal tissue – potentially allowing surgeons to be much more precise when removing breast cancer, avoiding removal of excessive healthy tissue, or some cancerous tissue being left behind.

The team is now working on taking their research from the lab to the operating theatre, developing a device that could provide a portable, cost-effective solution to prevent follow-up surgery, currently needed for 15-20% of breast cancer surgery patients where all the cancer is not removed.


Novel imaging technique to detect biomarkers of early-stage ovarian cancer

Matthew Briggs in lab coat in front of microscope

MALDI-MSI of N-glycans is a relatively new technique that has immense potential in several clinical applications including identification and validation of biomarkers in cancer tissues.

IPAS PhD student Matthew Briggs recently published about using this novel technique to spacially map sugars on ovarian cancer tissue samples