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Neurosurgeon to Investigate New Way to Treat Brain Tumors

Dr. Julie Pilitsis and research team will work to develop
an MRI-guided robotic system.

Julie Pilitsis, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery in the Division of Neurosurgery, is serving as co-principal investigator on a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop an MRI-guided robotic system that could offer safer, more accurate treatment options for patients with brain tumors.

Dr. Pilitsis, working with a team of engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA, is testing an MRI-compatible robotic system that delivers a high-intensity focused ultrasound ablation therapy device through a dime-sized opening in the cranium. The device can heat and erode away cancerous tissue while leaving surrounding normal tissue unaffected, potentially offering a significant improvement over current treatments.

Presently, patients with brain tumors are treated with either stereotactic radiation surgery, which may take multiple treatments and often takes time to work, or traditional brain surgery, which is highly invasive and can lead to other complications.

“Real-time imaging is important because it enables the clinician to identify the precise location of the tumor and surrounding structures that may shift during the procedure,” Dr. Pilitsis said. “Because the robot and device can move while images are being taken, we will be able to safely and efficiently eliminate the cancerous tissue without affecting other areas.”

The robot will be guided by live MRI images using a novel robotic manipulator developed by principal investigator Gregory Fischer, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering and robotics engineering at WPI and director of WPI’s Automation and Interventional Medicine Laboratory. Reinhold Ludwig, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering at WPI, will develop specially-designed MRI coils for the research project.

“This award is significant because it enables a multi-institutional collaboration to take place for the advancement of the treatment of brain tumors,” Dr. Pilitsis said. “Our research has the potential to identify ways to use technology to provide safer and more accurate treatment, and may even result in another treatment option for patients with metastatic brain cancer, and perhaps eventually, other cancers. At the end of the grant period, we hope to be ready to conduct patient trials.”

Co-investigators on the project are Matthew Gounis, Ph.D., associate professor and co-director of the Advanced MR Imaging Center at UMass Medical School, and Everette Burdette, Ph.D., president and CEO of Acoustic MedSystems, the developer of the MRI-compatible ablation device and software. 

A neurosurgeon specializing in deep brain stimulation and with extensive experience in stereotactic surgery, Dr. Pilitsis is serving as lead clinical advisor for the research. She began working with Dr. Fischer and his team on the development of a prototype robot when she served as director of functional neurosurgery at the UMass Memorial Medical Center, where she still serves as adjunct faculty.

Dr. Pilitsis, a graduate of Albany Medical College, is the only neurosurgeon in the region with subspecialty fellowship training in functional neurosurgery.