"The Q&A: Michael Heffernan" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:
Michael Heffernan is the director of GuidaBot LLC Research & Development, and Fannin Innovation Studio Principal, where he oversees product management and business development. GuidaBot is developing a robotic arm that is capable of operating inside an active MRI machine. We spoke with him recently about the GuidaBot project and its implications for healthcare.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Health: Can you explain what GuidaBot is developing? What are its applications?
Michael Heffernan: Essentially, what we're developing is a robotic device that can be used for medical interventions. And it’s used to guide a needle for minimally invasive interventions. So this would include procedures such as biopsies, or ablations, or electrode placement.
For example, in neurosurgery, and also in other types of procedures, you would need to take a biopsy sample of a tumor. This would require guiding a needle into the tissue and ensuring that the needle position is right inside the tumor.
Similarly, there’s other procedures where they want to destroy the tumor using a laser ablation technique, or other types of ablation, like microwave or cryoablation, and these are all methods of basically destroying the tumor while preserving the surrounding tissue. And that requires you to place that probe, or the needle, right in the center of the tumor or in a certain location in order to have an accurate procedure.
So the options that doctors currently have for guiding these needles is they use different types of imaging. This can include MRI, CT or ultrasound.
And essentially, what a lot of procedures will involve is taking an image before the procedure is done. And maybe that can be done the day before, or a few days before. And then they plan out the procedure, but when they do the procedure, they are not inside the imaging machine. So what can happen is there might be tissue movement as you're inserting the needle.
Or like in the case of neurosurgical procedures, as soon as they go into brain cavities, and they drill the hole in the skull, then the pressure changes and the tissue can shift a bit. So you get these inaccuracies that can result from not having a real-time imaging system.
If you can have your needle guidance system to function while you’re inside the MRI scanner then you can actually gather real-time images from the scanner while you're guiding the needle. Then you can verify and continually scan that the needle is in proper position as you’re trying to hit the target.
If the current procedures involve these non-MRI guided systems, then this would give them potential to get better accuracy.
So it may enable doctors to do a procedure they wouldn’t have done before, because they couldn’t get the accuracy with the current equipment.
The long-term goal would be, by making the system easy enough to use, we can broaden the range of doctors and facilities and MRI suites that could potentially be running these types of interventions.
Trib+Health: How did this project get started?
Heffernan: This technology came from the University of Houston. This was originally conceived in the laboratory of Nikolaos Tsekos.
We started working on it about two years ago.
They’re still involved — they're part of the STTR grant. And that's more geared at specifically transferring technology out of universities and into the industry
So part of the grant money is supporting work that’s being done in their lab, as well part at GuidaBot.
Part of the Fannin Innovation Studio model is that we form companies and partnership with the academic investigators that are at Houston based institutions, either universities or the medical institutions.
We stay actively involved and the inventors stay actively involved in the companies as we progress them.
Trib+Health: And what is this STTR grant that GuidaBot received?
Heffernan: We just received an NSF [National Science Foundation] grant — it’s called an STTR small business technology transfer research, innovative research grant. STTR grant is a small business grant that is provided by a number of agencies, including NSF and NIH [National Institutes of Health]. They support the commercializations of these technologies. So it helps the small business to get that initial funding to get it off the ground, when they may not be in the position where they can get venture capital funding.
Trib+Health: Is there anything you'd like to add?
Heffernan: Real impact in how can we help patients that have cancer, Parkinson’s, epilepsy — these are some of the conditions that we’re aiming to help with diagnosis or treatment of.
That's really what the underlying motivation is for pursuing this.