Tiny 3-D endoscopic camera being developed for use in brain surgery, space exploration
By Zen Vuong, Pasadena Star-News
September 7, 2015
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Los Angeles' Skull Base Institute have collaborated to create perhaps the world's smallest 3-D camera - an endoscope that could be used in brain surgery and space exploration.
Although an endoscope is meant to help visualize the interior of an organ or body part, the tiny device could also help NASA examine inaccessible geological features, such as narrow cracks in a planetary body, said Harish Manohara, principal investigator of the special project at JPL.
With a recent superbug scare at Huntington Memorial Hospital and outbreaks at UCLA and Cedars-Sinai Medical Centers, people are worried about exactly how safe endoscopes are, said Dr. Hrayr Shahinian, a surgeon and director of the Skull Base Institute.
"It is imperative that these instruments are correctly sterilized and are sterilizable because - especially in brain surgery - you could have viruses similar to mad cow disease," Shahinian said. "Having NASA on board is a big safety net for me because I know that it will be done right. We're not talking about a commercial entity that will try to cut corners or does not go through the FDA, as has been the case with some of these previous incidents."
For the past eight years, NASA's JPL has been developing a Multi-Angle Rear-Viewing Endoscopic TooL or MARVEL for the Skull Base Institute, which has licensed technology from the California Institute of Technology. The single-lens camera in the device is merely 0.2 of an inch in diameter and 0.6 of an inch long. The prototype includes a bendable neck that could rotate 120 degrees.
"This is the first of its kind," Shahinian said. "It is the smallest of its kind in the world as far as miniaturization is concerned."
Shahinian said he led a class of surgeons who moved away from open-skull surgery to endoscopic brain surgery in the mid-1990s. The technology allowed for shorter, less invasive surgeries that required smaller incisions and shorter hospitalization, he said. The tools provided magnified images at a higher resolution and let surgeons maneuver into spots their hands and fingers usually don't have access to.
The only disadvantage to endoscopic brain surgery is a loss of depth perception because imaging is two-dimensional, Shahinian said. The endoscope that Skull Base Institute and JPL are developing is expected to solve a surgical dilemma.
Stereo-imaging endoscopes use two cameras, but brain surgery requires more miniaturization, so MARVEL uses a single-lens camera with two "pupils" in the back of the lens. Each iris transmits distinct wavelengths only in red, green and blue using filters. Software merges the distinct color images, creating a 3-D image.
JPL and the Skull Base Institute are working together to build a clinical trial prototype. Completion of this third phase is about four years away, Manohara said.
Thus far the prototype has been tested on walnuts, oranges and pomegranates, Shahinian said. The next prototype is expected to be sterilizable, more ergonomic, have a lower profile and provide better imaging, he added.
MARVEL would not have made it this far without an incredible team passionate about the possibilities of this device, Manohara said.
"It is not part of a budgeted mission," he said. "It's still considered exploratory work whose use and utility will become evident as we go into the future and more scenarios come up."