Tentacle-like robot weaves through the lungs to tackle cancer
The innovative use of magnetic fields has opened up some exciting possibilities in cancer treatment, with scientists demonstrating how they can be used to steer tumor-killing particles into cancer tissue or wires into veins in search of blood cancers, to list a couple of examples. A thin new robot developed at the University of Leeds follows in these footsteps, taking the shape of a tentacle that can be guided into the depths of the lungs to inspect suspicious lesions or deliver drugs.
The tentacle-inspired robot was conceived to expand the reach of what's known as a bronchoscope, a tube-like medical instrument used to examine the lungs and airways. Doctors will feed this through the nose and mouth into the bronchial passages, and then send a finer 2-mm catheter through the inside of it and deeper into the respiratory tract.
But this approach has limitations in its maneuverability which leaves some spots out of reach, so the University of Leeds scientists set out to design a more pliable device that could be more finely controlled once inside the body. The result is a robot consisting of linked cylindrical segments made from a soft elastomeric and embedded with tiny magnetic particles.
This means that when subjected to a magnetic field the individual segments can move independently, making the robot highly flexible and able to worm its way through the twists and turns of the lungs. In a clinical setting, pre-operative scans would allow doctors to map out the route through the patient's unique lung structures, which would then be programmed into a robotic system mounted with magnets to automate control of the magnetic field.
“A magnetic tentacle robot or catheter that measures 2 millimeters and whose shape can be magnetically controlled to conform to the bronchial tree anatomy can reach most areas of the lung, and would be an important clinical tool in the investigation and treatment of possible lung cancer and other lung diseases," said Professor Pietro Valdastri, who supervised the research. “Our system uses an autonomous magnetic guidance system which does away for the need for patients to be X-rayed while the procedure is carried out.”
The technology is still years away from entering use in hospitals, but the scientists believe its precision and autonomous nature will offer a much more effective means of inspecting lesions, taking tissue samples or delivering anti-cancer drugs in difficult-to-reach places.
"This new technology will allow to diagnose and treat lung cancer more reliably and safely, guiding the instruments at the periphery of the lungs without the use of additional X-rays," said Dr Cecilia Pompili, member of the research team.
The video below shows the magnetic guidance system steering the robot around obstacles. The research was published in the journal Soft Robotics.
Source: University of Leeds