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This article was published 1/10/2015 (691 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two Winnipeggers — Dr. Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc — have won Canada’s biggest innovation prize. The two scientists — Torchia, a research scientist, and Tyc, an engineer — will be named the recipients of the Ernest C. Manning Foundation principal award and the $100,000 prize that goes with it at an event in Saskatoon today.
Their work has formed the foundation for what is now called Monteris Medical Inc., makers of the NeuroBlate, a device that allows surgeons to treat patients with deep-seated brain tumours.
As with many other examples of successful innovation, they are a 25-year overnight success story.
Torchia, 57, first started thinking about the challenge — using a laser to eliminate brain tumours that were too difficult or risky for traditional surgery — in the early ’90s when he was the principal investigator at the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre.
Tyc, 48, started working on the project in 1998 and has never left.
The device involves inserting a two-millimetre-wide probe deep into the patient’s brain which, with the help of robotics and MRI-guided imagery, burns out the tumour with directional laser heat.
Because there is really no margin for error — there is a great risk of causing neurological damage by disrupting healthy brain tissue — the procedure must perform to exacting standards.
John Schellhorn, the CEO of Monteris, said the technology has become firmly established in the neurosurgery community.
Data were presented just this week at the 2015 Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS) annual scientific meeting in New Orleans showing newly diagnosed brain-tumour patients experienced improved outcomes with the NeuroBlate.
"When you think about it, it is really quite preposterous what they have done," said Schellhorn. "It took a look of courage and imagination from Mark and Rich. I can’t tell you how proud we are of them."
Torchia may have begun his research in the early ’90s but Monteris did not form until 2002, and the first in-patient trial did not occur until 2006 at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.
"I remember it well," Torchia said of the first trial. "I felt terror. No matter how prepared you are and how much work to ensure that it is safe I was still thinking ‘Holy crap, they are going to stick it in someone’s brain.’ "
Now neurosurgeons at 35 installations and counting across North America are using the minimally invasive surgical procedure more and more.
Two weeks ago, there were seven NeuroBlate procedures done on the same day.
"It shows how far we have come," Torchia said. "We had a hard time getting seven done in the first year, then there was seven in a month, seven in a week and now seven in one day."
Tyc said he recently watched a procedure at Vancouver General Hospital, the NeuroBlate’s only Canadian site. ("Don’t get me started as to why there are not any in Winnipeg," Torchia said.)
"The patient was awake during the procedure, she was wheeled out of the operating room and 10 minutes later got up and went to the washroom on her own," said Tyc. "That’s minimally invasive surgery."
Patients can leave hospital after two days or less with a small cut and a stitch after a NeuroBlate procedure as opposed to a large hole in the skull, five days of post-op and a stay in the intensive care ward after traditional brain surgery.
Tyc, who is the vice-president of technology and advanced development of Monteris and continues to run its 14-person R & D operations in Winnipeg, said the company continues to develop the technology to make it easier to use.
(The company’s head office moved to Minneapolis about 10 years ago where there is a greater pool of expertise in the medical-device field.)
There are increasing instances of treating patients with brain-stem tumours that would have previously been inoperable and terminal.
"We are now operating on parts of the brain that previously surgeons simply wouldn’t go," Schellhorn said. "We are still in the early chapters, but it is very encouraging."
Tyc said, "We are the point now where laser therapy is not unknown to them (surgeons). They all recognize what it means to their practice. The surgeons are talking among themselves, and that is garnering more interest."
Harry Schulz was there at the very early days. As the business development officer of the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre in the 1990s, he helped organize the first rounds of funding to allow the research to carry on.
"No one can do early stage development without a functioning prototype," Schulz said. "It was almost like an in-house project at the time with support and trust from donors of the St. Boniface Foundation."
Kevin McGarry was the general partner of a couple of small Winnipeg investment funds that provided some of that early capital. One of them, Western Life Sciences Venture Fund, still retains an equity position in Monteris.
"This is very gratifying to see Mark and Richard honoured," said McGarry.
He said developing medical devices required expensive infrastructure and lots of support.
"We always believed in the technology and in Mark and Richard," said McGarry. "But sometimes you just get beaten down by the financial concerns wondering how we will ever be able to keep things going... Then you look back and realize, wow, this has taken so long."
In 2003 Monteris landed a $7-million round of financing including a significant amount from Business Development Bank of Canada, which also contributed to a subsequent round of financing last year.
Schellhorn said Monteris has just closed out a record quarter for both revenue and case volume. In addition to the 14 people at the Winnipeg operation, it employs about 53 people in the U.S. at its offices in Minneapolis as well as a roving sales and clinical team. (A Monteris representative is on-site for every procedure).
Torchia left his position at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and is now director of University Teaching Services at the University of Manitoba as well as being an associate professor of surgery in the faculty of medicine.
He remains a consultant to Monteris and its chief scientific adviser.
Tyc said, "We’re looking forward to what we are doing next and there are still problems to solve today not just two years from now."
For that reason, "the company has a very large life insurance policy on Rich," Torchia said.