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Smart Needle: The Adelaide Start-Up Transforming Brain Surgery

Photos: Naomi Giatas

For Professor Robert McLaughlin, the transition from Western Australia to South Australia in 2016 was an easy one.

“One of the great things about moving to SA has been the support of the research community, Adelaide University and the state government. They have been absolutely fantastic,” Robert says. “It’s been a real joy to move here. The people are really friendly.”

“The smart needle is an apt name for smart technology with commercial viability.”

Medical science was the reason for his move to Adelaide. “I’m an engineer who did a lot of maths and physics, and now I get to spend my time in neurosurgery, actually making things that have an impact there.” Robert is managing director of medical device start-up company, Miniprobes, Head of the Bioengineering Imaging Group at The University of Adelaide, and chair of Biophotonics at the uni.

Smart Needle: The Adelaide Start-Up Transforming Brain Surgery

His research group’s ground-breaking work in the field of neuroimaging saw the creation of the ‘smart needle’ – an innovative and game changing piece of equipment with the potential to make the complex world of brain surgery safer.

“To translate research, you need to take it out of the hallowed halls of the university and into industry.”

Brain surgery needles are bigger than you may think. Think of an instrument the size of a thin knitting needle inserted into your brain for biopsies. While the surgeon has a brain scan from before the operation, things can change and if they rupture a blood vessel, the situation can escalate quickly. Stroke, brain damage, and death are possible side effects.

“Right now, about two-to-three-percent of the time, a patient who undergoes a brain biopsy will be left somehow disabled. About one percent of the time they will die. What we’ve done is to make a needle that can see where it is going,” he says. A tiny lens the size of a human hair sits on the end of an optic fibre. “It works a bit like an ultrasound but uses light instead of sound. Importantly, it can see blood vessels and warn the surgeon before the needle would damage them.”

“Right now, about two-to-three-percent of the time, a patient who undergoes a brain biopsy will be left somehow disabled. About one percent of the time they will die.”

The smart needle is an apt name for smart technology with commercial viability. In no small part thanks to Adelaide University and the state government’s Premier’s Research and Industry Fund (PRIF) grant, alongside grants from TechInSA, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. According to Robert, Adelaide has the perfect conditions for start-ups and tech revolutions.

Smart Needle: The Adelaide Start-Up Transforming Brain Surgery

“To translate research, you need to take it out of the hallowed halls of the university and into industry. I’m lucky that I work with an incredible team of engineers, physicists and doctors who can help me do that. The advantage Adelaide has is that those people talk together better than they do in other centres in Australia.”

Commercial possibilities aside, it all comes down to the patient. “If I do my job well and I work really hard and stay focused, we can actually make a difference to someone who is going through the scariest day of their life.

That’s why you do it. That’s a reward that you can’t get elsewhere.”

miniprobes.com

Do you know of another innovative science start-up in South Australia? Let us know in the comments, below.

Smiley Fritz

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