Lung Cancer Robot: A Breakthrough in Cancer Treatment
Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States. However, some tumors are incredibly small and deeply hidden within lung tissue, making it difficult for surgeons to reach them. To address this challenge, researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University have developed a remarkable robot that can navigate through lung tissue with ease.
Achieving New Milestones in Lung Cancer Treatment
In a recent breakthrough, Ron Alterovitz, PhD, from the UNC Department of Computer Science, and Jason Akulian, MD MPH, from the UNC Department of Medicine, have successfully demonstrated that their robot can autonomously navigate from “Point A” to “Point B” while avoiding delicate structures like tiny airways and blood vessels in a living laboratory model. This achievement was published in Science Robotics.
Dr. Akulian, co-author of the paper and Section Chief of Interventional Pulmonology and Pulmonary Oncology in the UNC Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine, shares the significance of this technology: “This robot enables us to reach targets that were previously inaccessible with standard or even robotic bronchoscopes. It gives us those extra centimeters or millimeters that are crucial for pursuing small targets in the lungs.”
Collaboration Fuels Progress
The development of this autonomous steerable needle robot was made possible by leveraging the collaborative culture at UNC, bringing together expertise from medicine, computer science, and engineering. The team included researchers from UNC, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Utah.
The Features and Functionality of the Robot
The robot consists of multiple components. A mechanical control allows controlled thrust of the needle for forward and backward movement, while the needle design enables steering along curved paths. The needle itself is made of a flexible nickel-titanium alloy that has been laser etched to enhance its flexibility, allowing it to effortlessly maneuver through lung tissue.
As the needle moves forward, its etched surface enables it to navigate around obstacles with ease. Additional attachments, such as catheters, can be combined with the needle to perform procedures like lung biopsies.
The Role of AI in Guiding the Robot
For the needle to navigate through tissue effectively, it needs to know where it’s going. The research team utilized CT scans and artificial intelligence to create detailed three-dimensional models of the lungs, including the airways, blood vessels, and the intended target. By using this 3-D model and AI-driven software, the needle can automatically travel from “Point A” to “Point B” while avoiding crucial structures.
Ron Alterovitz, the principal investigator on the project and senior author of the paper, emphasizes the robot’s capabilities: “The autonomous steerable needle we’ve developed is highly compact, but the system is equipped with a range of technologies that allow the needle to navigate autonomously in real-time. It’s like a self-driving car, but it navigates through lung tissue, avoiding obstacles such as major blood vessels as it reaches its destination.”
Adapting to Respiratory Motion
The lungs constantly expand and contract within the chest cavity, making targeting challenging in a living subject. The researchers addressed this issue by ensuring the robot can account for respiratory motion. They tested the robot with intermittent breath holding during the laboratory model experiments, progressing forward each time the subject held their breath.
Continuing Advancements in Robotic Cancer Treatment
Although there are still some nuances to address in terms of the robot’s ability to acquire and reach targets effectively, Dr. Akulian remains optimistic about pushing the boundaries of what can be done for lung cancer patients. The team plans to develop more autonomous medical robots that combine the strengths of robotics and AI to improve patient outcomes while prioritizing safety.