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Najar family LITT
Andrew Najar, eight weeks post surgery and seizure free, with his proud and supportive parents, Silverio (left) and Lourdes (right).

Donor-funded laser technology is changing lives

Thanks to community support of state-of-the-art technology that enables Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy (LITT), Alberta Children’s Hospital neurosurgeons are the first in western Canada to perform a revolutionary procedure to help children suffering with seizures. In fact, thanks to community donations, life-changing brain surgery is now possible for children for whom surgery just wasn’t an option — until now. What used to be an invasive open procedure that required the equivalent of 100 stitches to close the surgical site can now be accomplished with just one suture.

Using LITT, neurosurgeons are able to pass a thin laser probe through a millimetre-sized incision into a target deep within the brain. The probe then heats up and destroys the tumour or lesion responsible for causing the seizures, while preserving the surrounding healthy brain tissue.

“While we use the utmost care to plan and perform operations within the brain, LITT allows us to operate with exquisite precision, in a non-invasive way,” says Dr. Walter Hader.

“Considering what’s at stake — a child’s life, a child’s future — my colleagues and I are grateful for any technology that makes these procedures safer and accessible to more children.”

Dr. Walter Hader
Neurosurgeon, Alberta Children's Hospital

LITT works in tandem with another donor-funded piece of innovative technology called a Robotic Surgical Assistant (ROSA). ROSA is used first to provide essential minimally invasive brain mapping in advance of LITT to show the surgeon where seizures are originating, and secondly to robotically place the LITT probes directly into the targeted tissue with pinpoint accuracy.

Brain surgery is very effective in many children with epilepsy and can significantly reduce their seizures or even take them away altogether in 50-70 percent of patients. However, prior to LITT and ROSA, brain mapping and open operations required the child’s entire skull cap to be removed. The process could be understandably frightening for families and some parents chose not to put their child through it.

Today, surgeons describe a very different scenario to families: a tiny incision, very little or no pain, home in one or two days…and one suture instead of one hundred.

“ROSA and LITT have made brain surgery less daunting for families. This technology is actually changing the conversation we’re having with families,” says Dr. Hader. “Considering what’s at stake — a child’s life, a child’s future — my colleagues and I are grateful for any technology that makes these procedures safer and accessible to more children.”

Scientists at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) are attracting international attention for being the first to uncover a link between prenatal depression, weakened brain wiring in children, and children’s aggression, hyperactivity and vulnerability to depression.

Andrew's story

When Andrew Najar had his first full body seizure at age 12, neither he nor his parents had any idea the involuntary laughing spells he’d been having his whole life were also seizures. That big seizure alerted doctors to the fact that Andrew had been living with a rare brain tumour his whole life. The tumour is called a Hypothalamic Hamartoma, and while it wasn’t cancerous, it was putting Andrew’s quality of life at risk.

Andrew was prescribed medication which stopped the major seizures. However, he continued to be plagued with the laughing outbursts or gelastic seizures — sometimes a dozen a day. The episodes left him tired and nervous, never knowing when he might have another one. He didn’t like to present in front of his class and knew he was missing out on things his friends were doing, like learning to drive.

While conventional surgery was discussed as a potential treatment, open procedures come with a 25-50 percent chance of impacting vital brain functions. In Andrew’s case, any attempt to remove the lesion from his brain meant operating within six to eight millimetres of his pituitary gland and memory centre. His family decided against surgery at that time, optimistic that something better was on the horizon. That “something” was Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy, and little did the Najar family know that people in our community were already donating so generously to make LITT a reality.

Two years ago, Andrew’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Hader, approached the Najar family about LITT. He explained how his team was working to bring the technology to Calgary where it could benefit kids just like Andrew. LITT would allow Dr. Hader to perfectly target Andrew’s seizures with less than a millimetre accuracy and safely eradicate the lesion with no harm to his brain. To Andrew and his parents, this was the answer they’d been hoping for.

Thanks to community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Calgary Health Foundation, LITT arrived in Calgary in early 2020 and is housed at the Foothills Medical Centre where it can help both children and adult patients in the first Canadian Epilepsy Surgery Brain Suite.

On August 25th, the eve of his 18th birthday, Andrew underwent his ground-breaking LITT procedure and became only the second kid in western Canada with a Hypothalamic Hamartoma to benefit from the therapy.

“I thought I’d have seizures for my whole life—now I can do anything.”

Andrew Najar, 18

“Andrew got the best birthday present of all — his first day free of seizures,” says Dr. Hader. We are pleased to share that Andrew has been seizure-free ever since the surgery.

“I thought I’d have seizures for my whole life,” says Andrew. “Now I can do anything. I can actually learn to drive one day.”

 

 

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