A robotic tentacle could revolutionize the way we detect and treat lung cancer

The robotic tentacle, which measures about 2mm in diameter, can reach the smallest bronchi in the lungs – unlike the technology currently available.

Researchers in the UK have created a robotic tentacle small enough to reach deep into the lungs, where it could detect the first signs of Cancer and terminate its cells – effectively treat patients with the disease.

The tiny surgical robot, developed by a team of researchers, engineers and clinicians based at the University of Leeds’ STORM Lab, consists of an ultra-soft silicone tentacle that is just 2.4mm in diameter and is controlled by magnets.

The tentacle consists of a series of interconnected cylindrical fragments, which are about 80 mm long and can move somewhat independently of each other.

According to the study published by the Leeds researchers in the journal Nature Communications Engineeringit can reach 37 percent deeper than standard equipment and can touch some of the smallest bronchi in our lungs, creating less tissue damage than traditional procedures.

The tentacle has not been tested on live patients, as researchers experimented with the lungs of cadavers, but researchers are collecting data to start human trials and are optimistic that the technology could revolutionize the way we treat lung cancer.

Currently, doctors examining patients’ lungs require a sample of tissue taken using a bronchoscope, an instrument between 3.5 and 4 mm in size that passes through the nose into the bronchi.

Due to its size, the bronchoscope cannot travel deeper into the smaller tubes of the lungs – but the robotic tentacle can.

Potential to revolutionize lung cancer treatment

According to the study, the use of the tentacle would correspond to a 30 percent increase in the navigation of the bronchial anatomy.

“This is a really exciting development,” Professor Pietro Valdastri, the director of the University of Leeds’ STORM Lab and a research supervisor, said in a statement.

“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 revolutionize navigation inside the body”.

The tentacle is maneuvered with magnets adapted to the patients and mounted on robotic arms that remain outside the patients while its route is pre-programmed.

“Our goal was and is to bring healing aid with minimal pain to the patient,” said study co-author Giovanni Pittiglio. “Remote magnetic actuation allowed us to do this using ultra-soft tentacles, which can reach deeper while molding to the anatomy and reducing trauma.”

Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide and the leading cause of cancer death for men and women around the world, according to cancer.net. The World Cancer Research Fund International reports that there were more than 2.2 million new cases of lung Cancer recorded in 2020.

In the same year, 1.8 million people died of lung cancer worldwide out of a total of nearly 10 million cancer-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a separate study published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systemsthe same researchers at the University of Leeds used two magnetic robotic tentacles to move independently of each other to perform brain surgery on a replica of the skull.

Passing through the nose, the tentacles simulated the removal of a benign tumor at the base of the skull, with one moving a camera while the other aimed a laser at the tumor.

“This is a significant contribution to the field of magnetically guided robotics,” said the paper’s lead author, Zaneta Koszowska.

“Our results show that diagnostic procedures with a camera, as well as complete surgical procedures, can be performed in small anatomical spaces”.

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