Researchers look to the skies for stroke response breakthrough

L-R: School of Engineering Professor Cees Bil and Associate Professor Kate Fox

How do you put a 500kg CT machine in an Air Ambulance helicopter or fixed wing plane? That’s the challenge researchers face in a bid to transform access to emergency stroke treatment.

School of Engineering Professor Cees Bil and Associate Professor Kate Fox are part of a 30-strong team awarded a $1 million dollar grant from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Frontiers initiative that could kick start the world’s first stroke air ambulance.

Stroke is highly-treatable, but time critical with the “golden hour” after onset being the key to give patients the best chance of survival.

The team, known as the Australian Stroke Alliance, features experts from health and academic institutes and charities, including the Royal Melbourne Hospital, University of Melbourne, Ambulance Victoria, Stroke Foundation and Royal Flying Doctors Service.

They’re working together to develop, test and, ultimately, implement brain imaging tools in air and road ambulances to help those in rural and regional areas.

The initiative would allow essential brain imaging to be conducted in situ, as opposed to in hospital, and the best course of treatment to be determined faster.

People in rural and regional areas are 19% more likely to have a stroke and are also more likely to have a poorer outcome.

Early next year, the project and others from across Australia that received stage one funding can apply for the next round of funding, worth about $50 million.

Bil, Fox and members of the 30-strong team with Australian Government Health Minister Greg Hunt MP and stroke survivor Barry Collins. The group is pictured in front of the Mobile Stroke Unit, which operates in Melbourne.Bil, Fox and members of the 30-strong team with Australian Government Health Minister Greg Hunt MP and stroke survivor Barry Collins. The group is pictured in front of the Mobile Stroke Unit, which operates in Melbourne. Photo: Peter Casamento

Fox is focused on developing a CT scanner, traditionally designed for hospitals, that’s smaller and lighter, while Bil is overseeing integrating the machine into a helicopter or fixed wing plane together with medical professionals and other medical equipment.

Bil said fitting heavy and delicate medical equipment on an aircraft was a significant engineering challenge.

“This equipment was not designed to fly and will be subjected to vibration, temperature variations and g-loads,” he said.

“We also need to make sure that there is room for the patient and paramedics and doctors can access them from all around.”

Bil said the team was collaborating with industry partners.

“On our specific aspect of the project, we’re working with a leading multi-national imaging vendor who manufacture CT scanners, and Five Rings Aerospace, an aerospace consultancy firm with expertise in airframe modifications for medical operations and approved to provide design and certification support,” he said.

Fox, the Biomedical, Embedded System and Signal Processing Engineering discipline leader, said she had never worked with such a diverse team.

“Solving such a complex problem like early stroke detection and treatment within the so called ‘golden hour’ can’t be done by a single person, service, hospital or university,” she said.

“This requires a team of multidisciplinary experts – from medical professionals like neurologists, radiologists and paramedics to engineers from aerospace, structural, biomedical and licensed certification disciplines and, of course, industry – who are united for a common outcome.”

Story courtesy RMIT, by Amelia Harris