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Steerable Lung Robot Reaches Targets Not Possible Even With Robotic Bronchoscope

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 22 Sep 2023
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Image: An overview of the semiautonomous medical robot’s three stages in the lungs (Photo courtesy of UNC School of Medicine)
Image: An overview of the semiautonomous medical robot’s three stages in the lungs (Photo courtesy of UNC School of Medicine)

Lung cancer is one of the prime reasons for cancer-related deaths worldwide. Detecting and reaching small tumors lodged deep within lung tissue is a major hurdle for medical professionals. To overcome this obstacle, researchers have been working on a highly flexible, yet robust, robot that can navigate through lung tissue.

The research by UNC School of Medicine (Chapel Hill, NC, USA) reached a new milestone with the team proving that their robot can autonomously travel from one point to another while avoiding crucial anatomical structures like small airways and blood vessels in a living lab model. The autonomous steerable needle robot comprises various elements. A mechanical controller offers a controlled thrust of the needle, allowing it to move both forward and backward. Made from a nickel-titanium alloy, the needle itself is designed to enable steering along curved paths and is laser-etched to enhance its bendability and enable smooth movement through tissue.

As it moves forward, the needle's etched design enables it to navigate around obstacles effortlessly. Additional instruments, like catheters, can be used with the needle to execute procedures such as lung biopsies. In order to drive through tissue, the needle relies on CT scans and artificial intelligence to build a 3D map of the subject’s lung, incorporating features like airways, blood vessels, and the target area. Once set in its starting position, the AI-powered software commands the needle to autonomously travel between designated points while avoiding vital structures.

Accounting for the lungs' constant movement due to breathing presents an additional challenge. The lungs are unique in that they continually expand and contract, making precise targeting tricky. The researchers equate it to aiming at a moving target. To overcome this, they tested the robot in a lab model that mimicked intermittent breath-holding. Each time the subject holds their breath, the robot is programmed to move forward.

“This technology allows us to reach targets we can’t otherwise reach with a standard or even robotic bronchoscope,” said Jason Akulian, MD MPH, in the UNC Department of Medicine. “It gives you that extra few centimeters or few millimeters even, which would help immensely with pursuing small targets in the lungs.”

“The autonomous steerable needle we’ve developed is highly compact, but the system is packed with a suite of technologies that allow the needle to navigate autonomously in real-time,” added Ron Alterovitz, PhD,, the principal investigator on the project. “It’s akin to a self-driving car, but it navigates through lung tissue, avoiding obstacles like significant blood vessels as it travels to its destination.”

Related Links:
UNC School of Medicine

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