Illustration Of Lungs And Inner Organs

Tiny surgical robot can travel deep into lungs to detect early cancer signs

Image credit: Shot4sell Shutterstock

A tiny robot that can travel deep into the lungs to detect and treat the first signs of cancer has been developed by researchers at the University of Leeds.

The tentacle-like device, which measures just 2mm in diameter and is controlled by magnets, paves the way for a more accurate and less invasive approach to treatment. It can reach some of the smallest bronchial tubes and could transform the treatment of lung cancer, the team said.

The researchers tested the robot on the lungs of a cadaver and found that it can travel 37 per cent deeper than the standard equipment and leads to less tissue damage.

Research supervisor Professor Pietro Valdastri said: “This is a really exciting development. This new approach has the advantage of being specific to the anatomy, softer than the anatomy and fully-shape controllable via magnetics. These three main features have the potential to revolutionise navigation inside the body.”

Lung cancer has the highest worldwide cancer mortality rate. In early-stage non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for around 84 per cent of cases, surgical intervention is the standard of care. However, this is typically highly invasive and leads to the significant removal of tissue. This approach is not suitable for all patients and can have an impact on lung function. 

As well as improving navigation within the lungs during biopsies, the magnetic tentacle robot could pave the way for far less invasive treatment, allowing clinicians to target only malicious cells while allowing healthy tissue and organs to continue normal function.

“Remote magnetic actuation enabled us to do this using ultra-soft tentacles, which can reach deeper while shaping to the anatomy and reducing trauma,” said Dr Giovanni Pittiglio, the report’s co-author.

The devices are made of silicone to minimise tissue damage and are steered by magnets mounted on robotic arms outside the patient’s body.

Using a replica of a skull, the team successfully trialled the use of two robots to carry out endonasal brain surgery – a technique that allows a surgeon to go through the nose to operate on areas at the front of the brain and the top of the spine.

The researchers needed the magnetic robots to move independently of each other so that one could move the camera, while the other could direct a laser onto a tumour.

Normally, two magnets placed closely together would attract each other, creating a challenge for the researchers. They overcame it by designing the bodies of the tentacles in such a way that they can only bend in specific directions, and by relocating the north and south poles in each magnetic robot tentacle. 

They were then able to simulate the removal of a benign tumour on the pituitary gland at the base of the cranium, proving for the first time ever that it is possible to control two of the robots in one confined area of the body.

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