Maggots are typically a telltale sign of death and decay, but the legless larva have inspired a new robotic prototype that could one day help brain surgeons preserve the lives of their patients.
For the last four years, J. Marc Simard, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and his team have been developing an intracranial robot that will help remove brain tumors. Shaped like a mechanical finger, multiple joints give the brain bot a range of probing motions. An electrocautery tool at its tip heats and destroys tumors, while a suction tube sucks out debris. The robot can also be remotely controlled by a surgeon while a patient is inside an MRI scanner, giving the surgeon an excellent view of hard-to-see tumors.
Simard was inspired to develop such a robot after watching a TV show where plastic surgeons were using sterile maggots to remove damaged or dead tissue from a patient.
“Here you had a natural system that recognized bad from good and good from bad,” Simard said in press release. “In other words, the maggots removed all the bad stuff and left all the good stuff alone and they’re really small. I thought, if you had something equivalent to that to remove a brain tumor that would be an absolute home run.”
On top of reducing incision size, Simard says being able to control the robot under continuous MRI monitoring helps surgeons keep track of tumor boundaries throughout the operation.
“When we’re operating in a conventional way, we get an MRI on a patient before we do the surgery, and we use landmarks that can either be affixed to the scalp or are part of the skull to know where we are within the patient’s brain,” he said. “But when the surgeon gets in there and starts to remove the tumor, the tissues shift around so that now the boundaries that were well-established when everything was in place don’t exist anymore, and you’re confronted once again with having to distinguish normal brain from tumor. This is very difficult for a surgeon using direct vision, but with MRI, the ability to discriminate tumor from non-tumor is much more powerful.”