Launch of the ‘smart needle’ brain probe, The University of Adelaide
Turnbull Government’s investment in research that has real impacts

Simon Birmingham: Warren, thank you very much. Rob, thank you for showing me the amazing research work that you’ve done, but more than research work of course, because it is work that is translated; knowledge, findings, research undertaking now into practical tools that can be taken into theatre, into surgery and make a real difference in the lives of patients and people hopefully right around the world. It is both a service to the health of people, and an economic opportunity for Australia, and it’s wonderful to hear that you are going from this step of basic research findings and undertakings, translating of course into practical products and now taking the leap into commercialisation of that product, creating opportunities for jobs, growth, and the things we want to see right across the research landscape, but importantly here, and with real, practical health outcomes and benefits as well in the enhancement of neurosurgery.

So congratulations. We are thrilled as a government to be able to continue to support and invest in outstanding research centres of excellence such as this one. There’s $32 million of Commonwealth funding support that’s coming here, but it’s a collaborative exercise. Without the support of universities, state governments, industry, those clinicians who work closely with researchers, these types of breakthroughs would not be possible.

So my heartfelt congratulations on this significant breakthrough. If you will pardon the pun, it’s one of those things that blows your mind. And when you’re looking at the type of technology that is being deployed and developed here, my hand clearly wasn’t quite steady enough on the tomato surgery that was undertaken in the lab before, but of course I can see well and truly that for those who are expert surgeons, the benefits of this tool are obviously of fundamental importance to them.

So thanks so much for the chance to share in this with you, and congratulations and best wishes for the next steps of taking it to market and seeing it rolled out in surgeries around the world, and of course from having profound benefits to those people that surgeons are helping and treating and saving lives. Thank you.

We again- we overall of course provide many hundreds of millions of dollars every year in research grants supporting basic research, applied research and Centres for Excellence such as this one. In this instance, there’s around $23 million of particular support for this world-class centre here at the University of Adelaide that operates cooperatively across a number of other institutions, and it is of course a leading light. But it’s also important that some of the reforms we’re applying as part of the Turnbull Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, such as continuous applications for research grants and that couple researchers with industry are making it more available and easier for industry to partner up with universities, as well of course providing changes in the incentives that both give universities more flexibility about how they deploy their money, with greater incentive to do it in a manner that partners with business and industry and therefore gives the best possible chance of commercialisation of products.

Question: How important is research and technology like this to the future of Adelaide and South Australia economically? 

Simon Birmingham: We’re seeing a huge change in the Australian economy; a shift away from traditional areas of manufacturing, and these are exactly the types of high technology breakthroughs that can create the jobs of the future for many people. But of course, whilst not everybody will be a researcher or a neurosurgeon, many jobs can be created in the manufacture and sale of products like this when they are successfully discovered and taken to market as a result of opportunities forged in institutes like this one. So it’s of huge economic benefit and potential, and to be able to have these types of breakthroughs, see them translated into actual products that can be used in a marketplace – in this case in surgical theatres – and see they’re taking the next step where hopefully we will have a global market for products just like this where we’re able to take that global market, capitalise on it, see them manufactured and produced out of Australia, sold around the world, used around the world, helping patients around the world.

Robert McLaughlin: And can I add to that answer as well? One of the great things about this is the perfect technology for us to be commercialising outside of- within, sorry- it’s the perfect technology for us to commercialise within Australia. It is small; it is portable; it is high tech. Really, the smarts here in exactly how we make it, that’s the sort of expertise we have in Australia. It’s something we can export to the world. It’s something that we can manufacture here. So I think as a model for Australian companies, it’s a great technology for us to keep here and manufacture here and then send out to the rest of the world.

Question: Obviously it’s quite portable. Is it quite cost-efficient as well, in terms of creating a device like this?

Robert McLaughlin: It is. We’re currently working on really minimising that cost, but the truth is the components that go into this are really quite inexpensive. In the heart of this is optical fibre. That’s the thing that you run hundreds of thousands of miles of that between continents to carry the internet. So what we do is we put tiny lenses on the end of that. So the raw components are really quite inexpensive, and it’s really just the expertise in making that. We’re currently working on ways to make that very quick and inexpensive.

Question: When are surgeons likely to be able to get their hands on this? When might we see it in the market?

Robert McLaughlin: I would anticipate over- realistically, probably over about the next four to five- maybe the next five years, I think. Medical devices are more challenging than other devices. You have to have government approval, because importantly, you’ve got to make sure things are safe, and there’s a whole lot of trials that we have to do to show this is safe. It’s very important. If someone’s going through something like neurosurgery, you need to not make things more complicated and more dangerous for them. So there’s a lot of trials we need to go through for that. But realistically, in the next five years I would expect this to be in the hands of neurosurgeons as something you can actually buy to use within neurosurgery.

Question: So it’s already been used- was it on 12 patients in Western Australia?

Robert McLaughlin: That’s correct.

Question: What’s the next step in the process?

Robert McLaughlin: So one of the great things about having taken this all the way from an idea on a whiteboard and actually getting that into surgeries, we’ve learnt so much. From doing those 12 patients, we really learnt exactly what do we need to do to this to make it an effective clinical product. So what we’ll be working on now is how do we redesign this to turn into the product that surgeons actually need. Our goal is to start our first clinical trial for working towards release in 2018. 

Question: So at the moment, these kind of probes don’t have cameras …

Robert McLaughlin: [Talks over] That’s correct.

Question: …[indistinct] that they do for other surgery.

Robert McLaughlin: So no. So at the moment, if you’re going to do a brain biopsy, what you’ll do is you’ll do a scan of the patient’s brain ahead of time, so you can see where the blood vessels are, and then when you’re actually in surgery, you can- you know where the needle is relevant to the scan beforehand, so you can see the major blood vessels. So surgeons don’t go in blind. They can see the big blood vessels, and they know the areas that are much more dangerous. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of blood vessels there that can be critical that they can’t see, and this will be the first time that we have a camera in there. They can actually see the blood vessels right next to them. So it’s not available in other types of surgery. Neurosurgery’s an incredible place to start off with this, because it can make such a huge impact that exactly the same technology we’re developing for neurosurgery is going to translate across to other surgeries.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.