SEP 21, 2023 4:30 PM PDT

AI-Driven Autonomous Needle Robot Aims to Revolutionize Lung Cancer Treatment

A recent study published in Science Robotics examines how a tiny robot can maneuver through lung tissue with the goal of attacking cancerous tumors that surgeons have traditionally had difficulty reaching due to the depth of the tumor and the complex features of the lungs, including blood vessels and tiny airways. This study was led by the University of Utah and holds the potential to help scientists and surgeons develop more effective treatment options for fighting lung cancer, which continues to be the leading cause of cancer-related deaths throughout the world.

Depiction of the autonomous steerable needle robots three stages within the lungs. (Credit: Kuntz et al.)

May 2023 video describing how ion robots help fight lung cancer.

“This technology allows us to reach targets we can't otherwise reach with a standard or even robotic bronchoscope,” said Dr. Jason Akulian, MD MPH, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine in University of North Carolina School of Medicine and a co-author on the study. “It gives you that extra few centimeters or few millimeters even, which would help immensely with pursuing small targets in the lungs.”

The technology in question consists of autonomous steerable needle robots each made of a mechanical control and a nickel-titanium alloy needle capable of steering through curved pathways. The needle’s autonomy is derived from the patient’s CT scans of their entire lung that are fed into an artificial intelligence algorithm and converted to 3D models, which allows the needle to commandeer the patient’s lung and its various obstacles going from “Point A” to “Point B”.

July 2023 video describing research from the University of Leeds about how robots can identify adn treat lung cancer. 

Along with its autonomy, the needle is also capable of recognizing the respiratory motion of the lungs, as it’s the only organ that’s constantly growing and shrinking as a person breathes. To test their robotic needle, the researchers used a laboratory model to exhibit breathing and the researchers observed the robot’s actions throughout the process, most notably its programming to move when the subject held their breath.

“There remain some nuances in terms of the robot’s ability to acquire targets and then actually get to them effectively,” said Dr. Akulian. “And while there's still a lot of work to be done, I’m very excited about continuing to push the boundaries of what we can do for patients with the world-class experts that are here."

November 2022 video describing additional research into using robots to treat lung cancer.

How can this new robotic needle help fight lung cancer in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Science Robotics, EurekAlert!, World Health Organization, UNC Health

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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