A robotic neurosurgical device created by a Carle Illinois College of Medicine student may offer a new kind of emergency treatment for traumatic brain injury in low-resource countries. Al Smith, the student spearheading the innovation, is a finalist for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons’ Innovator of the Year Award.

Al Smith, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Al Smith, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Smith, a second-year Carle Illinois student, was nominated for the prestigious award by his faculty mentor and Carle Health neurosurgeon, Dr. Wael Mostafa. As one of three finalists, Smith will present his design for a robotic navigational device that would enable general surgeons in under-resourced countries to treat patients with life-threatening fluid on the brain when a specialist is unavailable. “This device could help save lives, buying time until the patient can be transferred to a more advanced center,” Mostafa said.

Dr. Mostafa said the opportunity for Smith to present his innovation at an international gathering of neurosurgeons reflects the importance and potential impact of his work. Most past winners have been neurosurgeons. Smith will compete against two other finalists at the CNS Conference meeting in Texas on October 18, 2021.

Alex Teague, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Alex Teague, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The delicate procedure to relieve fluid build-up and pressure on the brain is usually performed by a neurosurgeon. But Smith, fellow Carle Illinois student Alex Teague, and their research team found that many countries lack sufficient neurosurgical care to provide timely emergency treatment for patients with traumatic brain injury, hydrocephalus, or brain hemorrhage, especially in non-urban centers. Smith says their device is meant to save lives by bridging the gap in emergency care. “We are working to develop a technology to stabilize these patients, similar to what’s used in the U.S., but at a much lower cost,” said Smith.

Software developed by Smith and Teague works with computed tomography (CT) imaging technology to pinpoint exactly where the surgeon needs to place the drain to relieve fluid build-up. The software creates a 3-D image that guides the surgeon’s use of the robotic device. This helps to ensure effective, safe placement of the drain into the brain’s ventricles to relieve the pressure and stabilize the patient for transport to a trauma center that provides advanced neurosurgical treatment. Due to the expected low cost of producing the device (the prototype cost less than $250 to build), it could have greatest impact in countries with low resources, a shortage of neurosurgeons, and a high rate of ventricular drain placement procedures.

Neurosurgical Navigation Device Testing
Neurosurgical Navigation Device Testing. Photo courtesy of Al Smith and Alex Teague.

The device is now in its second prototype, and the team is seeking support for its next round of testing involving human anatomy donors (cadavers). Once proven and with further design refinements, Smith says the device could be adapted for use in other trajectory-based surgical procedures, such as deep-brain stimulation and placement of screws to connect spinal vertebrae.

Smith’s project is currently funded through a grant from the Carle Illinois Innovation Pathway Program.

Editor’s note: Al Smith is the first student admitted to Carle Illinois’ Medical Scholars Program to pursue both an M.D. and a Ph.D. degree.