Dr. Garnette Sutherland is nothing short of interesting. After working with a talented team to build the world’s first ceiling mounted movable high-field magnet known as the intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (iMRI) system, Dr. Sutherland collaborated with Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to move onto his next ambitious project, an image-guided neurosurgical robot called neuroArm.
The goal of neuroArm: To build a robotic arm to compliment the iMRI and create a safer environment for more accurate surgery. Dr. Sutherland’s work surrounding iMRI and initial work with neuroArm helped him become a recipient of the 2007 ASTech Award for Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology.
Since then, Dr. Sutherland has continued to gain recognition by obtaining the 2008 City of Calgary Signature Award and being named a Member of the Order of Canada for his lifetime achievements in the field of medical innovation.
It’s been eight years since you were honoured by ASTech. What have you accomplished since winning the 2007 Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology ASTech Award?
In the early/mid 2000s, we began a project to build a magnetic resonance (MR) compatible robot that could enter the imaging environment that we called project neuroArm. We built it in collaboration with MDA, the Canadian company that built CanadArm™ and Dextre for the International Space Station.
The robot manufacture was completed in 2008, and incorporated in our operating room shortly after that. We moved to pre-clinical studies, and now we have operated on more than 60 patients using the neuroArm. This technology was transferred to a company, and that company has now built the commercial project of neuroArm, which they call SYMBIS™. It is now under FDA review.
What has acted as your greatest inspiration over the years?
The inspiration is always to improve the outcome of people with neurosurgical disease. Because I’m a neurosurgeon, I aspire to develop new technologies, translate them into the operating room towards achieving a better outcome for people with neurosurgical kinds of problems – like brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease, and aneurysms. Helping these individuals is the driving force behind developing these technologies.
What networks have supported you throughout your work?
Doc, Don and B.J. Seaman provided money for our original project, the iMRI. They also gave more money towards the neuroArm project. Using this seed funding, we were able to acquire matching dollars initially from Western Economic Diversification. We then obtained more funds from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. In that particular package, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology also provided support for the project. More importantly, the people of Calgary – the philanthropic community – provided additional funds to complete the project.
In summary, our ideas have been well funded by the provincial and federal governments, and the people of Calgary. We’ve enjoyed tremendous support.
You mentioned that it is a robot working inside of a magnet, what kind of challenges does that create?
A lot! When you say you’re going to build a robot to go into that space – which is a high-field magnet – you have to start thinking about what kind of material this robot will be made out of, because you don’t want objects flying into the magnet, and in the process causing hazards to patient and imaging environment. You have to begin to think about what kind of motors you’re going to use to drive the robot, because normal electro-magnetic motors are not compatible with a magnet. The motors in our robot are made from ceramic materials and called piezoelectric.
In the end, you do not want the robot impacting the image quality, and you don’t want the process of acquiring images to impact the robot. It is important to consider the type of sensors you’re going to use in your robot for joint motion and other control mechanisms related to robotics. It is also necessary to think about how you’re going to access the operating room, which is a radio frequency (RF) shielded space necessary for MR image acquisition.
More recently, our project received recognition from NASA and the Space Foundation. In fact, neuroArm robot, together with institutional partners and myself, was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame. This portrays a great example of how research and development for space exploration can be translated into the operating room here on earth.
How do you think a project like this has impacted the learning cycle that students go through?
I think it’s tremendous! It is a high-profile project that demonstrates that it is possible to achieve international attention and visibility from ideas generated here in Alberta. Students and young minds can be inspired to know that their ideas can also be realized and translated into the global community.
What’s next in your career?
Keep striving for the better all the time. I’d really like to see factories built here in Alberta capable of manufacturing medical devices. One of my ongoing themes relates to asking the question: are we able to consolidate our business and engineering communities towards achieving such a goal?
We have also begun the process towards considering the build of another robot, more for micromanipulation. This robot would shift surgery from its present organ towards cellular level. neuroArm is accurate to within 70 to 80 microns. A cell robot would operate at only a few microns, capable of gently and accurately manipulating cells in health and disease. Such a formidable project would bring together multiple dimensions of our university and community towards making this new idea a reality.