Dr. Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc started off buying chunks of meat in a Winnipeg supermarket to test an idea for a gizmo in their lab — now it’s performing brain surgery in 35 medical centres across North America.

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Dr. Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc started off buying chunks of meat in a Winnipeg supermarket to test an idea for a gizmo in their lab — now it’s performing brain surgery in 35 medical centres across North America.

University of Manitoba alumni Torchia and Tyc are one of six teams receiving the inaugural Governor General’s Innovation Awards May 19 for their development of the NeuroBlate System.

MONTERIS.COM</p><p>NeuroBlate System for MRI guided neurosurgical ablation.</p>

MONTERIS.COM

NeuroBlate System for MRI guided neurosurgical ablation.

Their NeuroBlate device, two decades in the making, drills through the skull to deliver a laser beam on a lesion, with the minimal possible damage to brain tissue. It’s about two millimetres wide and made of a polymer and sapphire construction, details of which are proprietary. The name is a combination of the words neurosurgery and ablation.

Torchia is an associate professor of surgery in the U of M’s College of Medicine and the director of the University’s Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. Tyc is vice-president, technology and advanced technology, at Monteris Medical, a spinoff company established in 1999 to create groundbreaking neurosurgical technologies.

"The idea about using lasers in brain surgery has been around a long time," Torchia said Thursday, but perfecting it to allow surgeons to work with the least possible damage has been the key.

"Rich and I have been working on it, you’re probably looking at two decades."

Given the amount of evidence and documentation needed for government approval, that amount of time "is not atypical for sticking something in the brain," Torchia said.

Tyc said it was 2009 before they were allowed to experiment on a human brain.

Before that, "We were using meat we could buy at the butcher shop," Torchia said. "You get into a model that mimics live tissue."

Then came approval for a clinical study in Cleveland.

"These were real people, quite terrifying," Torchia said. "

You get people with a bad disease, no option, and they volunteer."

Since then, said Tyc, "We’ve had over 700 patients treated to date in 35 centres in North America," but that number started very slowly and has grown to the point there are several procedures each day. "We almost doubled our caseload since last year."

The company is headquartered in Minneapolis, Tyc said, but "all the hardware and software design is done in Winnipeg."

Torchia said they can’t discuss cost, which is "somewhere between a plaster bandage and an MRI."

Tyc said the device’s use increases as evidence of its success mounts and doctors talk among themselves about it. Regulations preclude their talking in terms of a rate of cure, he said. "It’s minimally invasive," and patients go home much sooner compared with other forms of brain surgery.

It was first used in the U.S. and has been in use at Vancouver General Hospital for more than a year. Regulatory approval came faster in the U.S. than in Canada, said Tyc.

NeuroBlate also won the Ernest C. Manning Principal Award in October 2015.

The NeuroBlate System, developed at the St-Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre, is a unique technology that encapsulates the criteria for the Governor General’s Innovation Awards: exceptional technology that transforms a field and positively impacts the quality of life in Canada, the U of M said.

Torchia and Tyc will receive their award at the inaugural ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa May 19.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca