‘Nightmare’ may be a dream for future surgeons

Ali Tavallaei lives “an engineer’s worst nightmare” every single day at Western. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

After completing his undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in Iran, Tavallaei came to Canada in 2009. After a year-and-a-half at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the 32 year old felt Western, in particular the university’s Robarts Research Institute, would be the better fit.

“I knew about the great stuff that was going on here at Robarts,” he said. “Apart from academically being successful, their technology transfer was so strong, which shows they are pioneers. The university itself, and its solid graduate program, was also big for me.

“It has been the best decision.”

In Robarts scientist Maria Drangova’s lab, Tavallaei designs and fabricates robots that can function within an MRI machine for image-guided surgery.

His challenge is to design machines that fit within the limited physical confines of the MRI, but are also compatible with its harsh environment. With such a strong magnetic field, the basis of every MRI, engineers cannot use the normal magnetic components found in most robotic machines. There is also the issue of the large amplitude radio frequency signal within the MRI.

“An engineer’s worst nightmare is having to design something for an MRI,” Tavallaei said with a laugh. “Your requirements are going against what you’re so used to designing.”

But the work has great potential.

One of the most common heart diseases is cardiac arrhythmia, where the heart beats irregularly, Tavallaei explained. Currently, the cure for years is a procedure where doctors insert a catheter, go to specific points and ablate. Doctors are guided through the procedure by X-rays of the area.

However, X-rays provide only part of the picture as they see bone tissue well, but not soft tissue.

An MRI, however, produces high soft-tissue contrast, along with the ability to view the area in 3D and in real time. The problem with MRIs is direct access to the patient. While some centres have open-bore MRIs, where the magnet can split and allow doctors to operate directly on patients, they are quite rare. More common are MRI machines where access to the patient is limited.

Tavallaei’s technology, however, would create robots that allow doctors to operate remotely on a patient inside the MRI.

Currently, he has two patents filed relating to the technology for MRI-guided catheterization, a paper published on the topic and a start-up company already on the go.

Vital Biomedical Technologies Inc., established in 2012, explores the design and development of MRI-compatible surgical robots without compromising image quality, safety or system performance.

Tavallaei believes his close working relationship with Western and Robarts put him in a unique position. While still a PhD student, he felt getting his company off the ground early is key.

“The sooner you start the better, and the sooner you fail is also better,” Tavallaei said.

While obstacles remain, Tavallaei is confident the path he is on leads to success.

“I feel like my day is not complete unless I have taken one step ahead,” he said. “It’s a roller-coaster ride at times, there are ups and downs, but you ride it out and it’s very rewarding when you get to solve something.”