On target: A clever catheter to track and treat brain diseases

“My area of research is medical robotics for neurosurgical applications, including diagnostics and precision delivery of therapeutics,” says Dr Riccardo Secoli, a researcher in Imperial’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Diagnosing and treating diseases of the brain, from brain tumours to epilepsy, bring particular challenges, as Dr Secoli explains: “One difficulty is reaching certain areas of the brain, for example to take a biopsy, without create damage to other areas. Another is how to get drug treatments to the place where they’re needed.”

 Working with colleagues at Imperial and in Italy at the Università di Milano and Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Dr Secoli has been testing out the potential for using a bio-inspired catheter for delivering chemotherapy drugs to brain tumours. He joined the second Techcelerate cohort to explore this and other possible applications outside of academia.

 Taking part in the programme has helped the team investigate a wider range of applications for their technology, as well as find new collaborators, pitch for funding and begin the process of spinning out a business.

 “As an academic, you might think your research is beautiful and it will change the world. But when you look at whether it’s actually possible to commercialise the work, you might find out that what you’ve discover isn’t really needed. Techcelerate gives you the opportunity to explore that.”

 Dr Secoli and his colleagues are working together as Neoptera Surgical to develop their technology to help surgeon’s access their patient’s brains more easily and more safely. Inspired by the structure of a wasp’s sting, they have created a flexible, steerable catheter that can accurately deliver a variety of treatments to specific areas of the brain. It can also analyse the brain tissue in real time. 

"“My aspiration is to follow this project by moving from academia into business. I enjoy my research, but for me to take this from the lab into the real world will mean better treatments for patients.”"

Dr Secoli made use of Techcelerate’s travel budget to visit medical conferences and speak to clinicians. He discovered that the vast majority of chemotherapy for brain tumours is delivered either as an injection into the blood stream or swallowed as medicine. So, he began exploring other potential uses for the catheter.

 “No matter how the drugs are given to the patient, you can use this catheter to monitor how cancer treatments are working by examining changes in the molecular structure of the tissue. Its design means you can look at several different parts of the tumour during just one surgical procedure.”

Another possibility Dr Secoli began to investigate was embedding a laser in the catheter to carefully target and destroy diseased brain tissue in epilepsy. 

Since taking part in Techcelerate, Dr Secoli has gone on to win a place on MedTech Superconnector, a programme designed to help academics with ideas for medical advancements to get their technologies into the clinic faster.

 As a result of what he has discovered on both programmes, Dr Secoli is now focusing primarily on developing the catheter for use in laser ablation treatment of refractory epilepsy. He is working with clinicians at University College Hospital in London and at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US. Dr Secoli has also joined up with medical technology firm Medtronic to apply for funding to develop his technology.

 The Neoptera Surgical team was recently invited to pitch to a group of venture capitalists in Taiwan for investment and, as a result they are now exploring possible joint business opportunities: “Right now, we are working with the [Commercialisation] office to see how and when to spin out a company this year. We are also working flat out to build up a strong business plan to pitch potential investors.”

 Dr Secoli adds: “My aspiration is to follow this project by moving from academia into business. I enjoy my research, but for me to take this from the lab into the real world will mean better treatments for patients.”