Posted: 11:00 am Tue, October 16, 2012

By Alissa Gulin

Daily Record Business Writer


The highly promoted strategic partnership between the University of Maryland, College Park, and the University of Maryland Baltimore has yielded its first tangible result: a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for continued development of a tiny robot to be used in brain surgeries.


Dr. Rao Gullapalli (left) and Dr. J. Marc Simard show off a picture of the prototype of their minimally invasive neurosurgical intracranial robot Tuesday at the University of Maryland Baltimore.Dr. Rao Gullapalli (left) and Dr. J. Marc Simard show off a picture of the prototype of their minimally invasive neurosurgical intracranial robot Tuesday at the University of Maryland Baltimore.


Researchers from both institutions have been developing the robot prototype — known as MINIR, the “minimally invasive neurosurgical intracranial robot” — for about five years. The project, which combines College Park’s engineering prowess with Baltimore’s medical expertise, is a concrete illustration of progress stemming from collaboration, they said.


“It’s no longer that we can work in isolation,” said Dr. Rao Gullapalli, an associate professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at UMB, and one of the project’s leaders. “I think you need the engineers and the doctors to play together, and miracles can happen. That’s what I’m trying to do between the two campuses.”


With the new funding, researchers plan to fine-tune their prototype to make it fully compatible with magnetic resonance imaging. They hope a fully operational, MRI-compatible robot will enable neurosurgeons to reach deeply embedded brain tumors in patients who otherwise might not be candidates for surgery.


They hope to launch clinical trials within five years, Gullapalli said, with the ultimate goal of patenting and commercializing the device.


The team includes Dr. J. Marc Simard, a professor and practicing neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Jaydev P. Desai, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UMCP. Each of the three men brought his own specialty to the table when devising the device’s blueprint.


Desai leads a team of engineers in College Park that designed the nimble, brass “worm” that Gullapalli is working to make compatible with MRI technologies, so Simard can use it on the front lines in the operating room.


The joint research project is one of the more visible examples of the partnership between the two institutions, which was finalized in March and dubbed “University of Maryland: MPowering the State.” Though the project is exactly the kind of work University System of Maryland officials hoped to achieve with the partnership, the robot’s developers said the urge to join forces was their own.


The three men conceived the idea over lunch, in “a little coffee place discussion,” Gullapalli said, but Simard explained it goes back even further.


Before the surgeon chanced upon Gullapalli and Desai mulling over ideas in a cafeteria, he saw a television program that stuck with him, he said. The show featured plastic surgeons using sterile maggots to eat away dead human skin left behind by certain kinds of wounds, helping healthy tissue to grow.


“Watching this, I was actually fascinated and thought we should try to do something like that for brain tumors,” Simard said, explaining tumors share similar consistency and characteristics to the dead tissue featured on the show. “So that is the origin of this whole concept, to develop a very tiny robot that would sense or be able to determine where the bad tissues are, remove the bad tissues and leave good tissues alone.”


With the assistance of a smaller NIH grant, the team got to work developing a prototype, running initial tests and creating software to handle new MRI applications.


Gullapalli said he thinks they would have continued the project even without the official partnership. But for others less eager to venture off-campus, he thinks the partnership could eliminate barriers to collaboration, which he added is particularly critical in his fields.


“If you look at the most successful universities in this whole nation, you will see that the engineering and the medical school is on the same campus,” he said. “And that’s where most of the innovations happen.”


“Minimally invasive” brain surgery may seem paradoxical, which is why Simard said the medical community needs to think outside the box. The common procedure for removing a brain tumor is indeed invasive, he explained, but it needn’t be.


Currently, surgeons must make a large incision in the brain to establish a “line of sight” to manually extract a tumor. By contrast, a robot with MRI capabilities would make it possible for a surgeon to navigate through the brain via a much smaller point of entry.


“The way MINIR is being developed,” Simard said, “will allow us to get neatly down to the tumor and then literally turn and move in any direction that we want to remove the lesion, the tumor, without injuring the brain tissues on the way down.”


This device would revolutionize neurosurgery, Simard said, because it would give surgeons a powerful and precise new method of tumor removal and would make more people eligible for the procedure.


“Many patients simply cannot endure the kind of brain surgery that we do,” he said. “All they have left is to be treated with radiation or chemotherapy, which may or may not be effective. So this could be a game-changer for people who have large lesions deep in the brain inaccessible by current methods.”


While monitoring the MRI on a screen, the surgeon would use a joystick to maneuver the robot through a patient’s brain to destroy, liquefy and finally suck out the tumor, Simard said.


“This is the reason we need a stronger coordination between the two campuses,” Gullapalli said. “This place is problem-rich — on a medical campus, there are a lot of problems. You need solutions. And the solution-rich place is College Park because they have the brightest engineers over there.”