GPS enhanced bronchoscopy suit in action

3D navigation for precise tumour detection

New tool fitted with a precise positioning sensor helps surgeons navigate through the bronchial labyrinth to improve the chances of lung tumour sufferers.

The pencil-thin tube known as a bronchoscope has been around for quite a while. Fed down the patients’ airways in a rather unpleasant procedure, it is equipped with a camera and tiny pincers to take samples of bronchial tissue. Unfortunately, finding the right path through the lungs has so far been a matter of luck. In many occasions, doctors haven’t been able to locate the tumour, previously visible on X-ray images, and failed to take a sample for biopsy.

The new technology, developed by scientists and engineers at the Scandinavian research institute SITNEF, makes it possible to navigate with the bronchoscope through the lungs with a help of a 3D map, which has been created previously using ultrasound or CAT images.

Using advanced mathematical modelling, the 3D map is synchronised with the actual position of the bronchoscope inside the patient’s lungs. The positioning sensor then registers the movements and shows in real time how the tool is moving inside.

“The challenge lies in getting the system to realize that the pictures that the bronchoscope is taking inside the patient, and the CAT images that were taken earlier, refer to one and the same thing. The two sets of images have to fit together like a hand in glove to give us the accuracy that we require,” said Erlend Hofstad, the projects’ research engineer. “Since the patient is under local anaesthetic but still awake, we have only a certain amount of time to carry out this task.”

The new technique promises to improve and speed up the diagnosis, and thereby offer the patient appropriate treatment as early as possible. In the case of lung cancer, every day matters. The team believes they will be able to localise tumours within a few millimetres range.

The task is further complicated by the constant movements of the lungs as the patient is breathing. It is therefore extremely difficult to synchronise the previously taken images with the actual view of the bronchoscope’s camera. 

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