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Northwestern Medicine first to use bedside neurosurgical drill that gives surgeons quicker and safer access to the brain


A Northwestern University student thought a common neurosurgical tool looked ‘medieval.’ Now, surgeons at Northwestern Medicine are using her auto-stopping drill to save lives at the bedside.

Dr. Potts used the Hubly Drill to create a burr hole in the skull of a patient with a brain bleed

CHICAGO – March 5, 2024 – A Northwestern Medicine neurosurgeon is the first physician in the U.S. to successfully use a new neurosurgical drill to save the life of a patient in the intensive care unit. The emergency procedure took place in October 2023 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital when Northwestern Medicine neurosurgeon Matthew Potts, MD, used the Hubly Drill – an auto-stopping cranial drill developed by students at Northwestern University –  to create a hole in the skull of a patient with a brain bleed. After inserting a catheter through the hole, Dr. Potts was able to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid from the patient’s brain, relieving pressure inside the skull and ultimately saving the patient’s life.

“The first time I used it, I was able to drill a hole in the patient’s skull in only 15 seconds – far faster than the average for the hand-crank drill that we typically use for these types of procedures,” said Dr. Potts. “Hand-crank drills are also prone to plunging and slipping, which can be dangerous for the patient. This new drill has taken a common bedside procedure and made it quicker, safer and more accurate.”

In the U.S., medical professionals perform more than 25,000 ventriculostomies each year. The neurologic procedure requires surgeons to act quickly to relieve pressure inside the skull due to serious conditions such as hemorrhage, traumatic brain injury, ruptured aneurysm, or stroke. Given the urgency, patients can not afford to wait hours for an operating room to become available, so the procedure is commonly performed in the ICU at patients’ bedsides.

The Hubly Drill

Modernizing the cranial drill

While studying neuroscience as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Casey Qadir, the 24-year-old chief executive officer of Hubly Surgical, learned that ventriculostomies are typically performed using hand-powered drills. The device, she said, initially reminded her of primitive surgical tools one might see in a museum.

“I was surprised to learn about some of the antiquity that still exists in neurosurgery today. Possibly the most egregious example of that is the use of the hand-crank drill for emergency ventriculostomies,” said Qadir. “At first glance, I thought the hand-crank drill looked medieval. So you can imagine my surprise when that turned out to be true. Hand-crank drills almost exactly like the ones used today have been used to form holes in the skull since the Middle Ages.”

In a graduate-level course called NUvention Medical offered by The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Qadir was challenged to develop and commercialize her own medical technology through the creation of a startup. In 2017, she teamed up with her classmates to form Hubly Surgical, and got to work to modernize the cranial drill.

“The biggest problem with hand-powered drills is they do not contain an automatic stop feature,” said Qadir. “We know from one study that 66% of physicians experience plunging, which carries a 12% risk of death or permanent neurological morbidity. Another study shows that even in the hands of an experienced neurosurgeon, the risk for complication from manually drilling is 2%.”

Dr. Potts and Casey Qadir

To address these issues, Qadir and her team developed a battery-powered drill with a variety of safety features. An auto-stop mechanism shuts off power to the motor as soon as the drill breaks through the skull. A cone-shaped drill bit also guards against over-penetration.

On the back of the device, a colored LED light turns green to let users know they are applying the correct amount of force, then changes to red when the device comes to a halt.

While the hand-crank drill requires two hands to operate, the Hubly Drill enables surgeons to use the device single-handedly, allowing surgeons to place their free hand on the patient’s shoulder to stabilize them while drilling.

“This drill offers greater levels of control and stability, and its ease of use is especially beneficial for our residents and fellows who are still learning the procedure,” said Dr. Potts. “In addition to how innovative this technology is, I think it’s wonderful to see Northwestern students and residents coming together to create something that, years later, is now poised to have a huge impact on the field of neurosurgery.”

“It’s incredibly meaningful that being founded out of Northwestern, Northwestern also got to be the first place where we had impact on the patient population and the users that inspired us to fix the problem in the first place,” said Qadir. “And then specifically, Dr. Potts – to have someone so highly regarded in the field as our first user is incredibly powerful in setting us up for a great future.”

The Northwestern Medicine Neurosurgery Teams are committed to providing comprehensive, multidisciplinary care for patients with neurological conditions, using advanced technologies and innovative approaches to care. For more information about Northwestern Medicine Neurosurgery, visit nm.org.

View B-ROLL Hubly Drill, hand-crank drill, Dr. Potts and Casey in NSICU
B-ROLL Hubly Drill, hand-crank drill, Dr. Potts and Casey in NSICU
View Casey Qadir SOTs
Casey Qadir SOTs