How robots can offer a helping hand in the fight against cancer

Researchers are constantly looking for ways to detect cancer earlier but also to find more effective treatments that minimise damage to healthy tissue.
  • New robot could help detect breast cancer in early stages
  • This robotic arm uses AI to destroy cancer cells
  • Robot tentacle travels deep into the lungs to detect and kill cancer
  • Two-handed robot performs brain surgery

Cancer is considered to be one of the world’s biggest health problems and one of the leading causes of death worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there were 20 million new cancer cases around the world in 2022. A whopping 9.7 million people lost their lives to the illness. Furthermore, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 people will be diagnosed with cancer over the course of their lives, while 1 in 9 men and 1 in 12 women will die from it. The most common type of cancer worldwide is lung cancer, which accounted for 2.5 million new cases in 2022, followed by female breast cancer (2.3 million), colorectal cancer (1.9 million), prostate cancer (1.5 million), and stomach cancer (970,000). When it comes to cancer-related deaths, lung cancer was once again at the top of the list, accounting for nearly 20 per cent (1.8 million) of all cancer deaths. Colorectal cancer claimed 900,000 lives, while 760,000 people succumbed to liver cancer. Breast cancer caused 670,000 to lose their lives, while stomach cancer was responsible for 660,000 deaths. As the global population continues to grow and live increasingly longer lives, the number of new cancer cases worldwide is predicted to increase even further in the upcoming period, reaching 35 million in 2050. This massive surge, which represents a staggering 77 per cent increase compared to 2022, will also be fuelled by the growing exposure to risk factors like air pollution, tobacco, alcohol, and obesity.

Of course, avoiding risk factors is the best way to prevent cancer. Coupled with existing evidence-based prevention strategies, it’s enough to keep up to 50 per cent of cancers at bay. Another effective way to reduce the number of cancer victims is to detect the disease as early as possible and apply appropriate treatment, which typically involves surgery, radiotherapy, or systemic therapy. Early detection of cancer significantly increases the likelihood that the treatment will be successful and improves the patient’s chances of survival. But even then, there are no guarantees. The main problem with conventional cancer treatments is that they often cause damage to the healthy tissue — not just the cancer cells — which can significantly impact the patient’s quality of life. This is why researchers are constantly looking for new ways to detect cancer before it has a chance to spread to other parts of the body, and devise more effective treatments that can eradicate cancer cells without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue. In this article, we will take a closer look at some of the most promising developments in this field that could forever change how we diagnose and treat cancer.

“We hope that the research can contribute to and complement the arsenal of techniques used to diagnose breast cancer, and to generate a large amount of data associated with it that may be useful in trying to identify large-scale trends that could help diagnose breast cancer early”.

George Jenkinson, PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol

New robot could help detect breast cancer in early stages

Clinical breast examinations (CBE) play an important role in breast cancer screening and detection. They are typically performed by healthcare professionals like doctors or nurses and are often part of routine check-ups for women. The biggest advantage of CBEs is that they can be performed in a variety of healthcare settings and don’t require any specialised equipment, making them more accessible and cheaper than mammography. On the other hand, CBEs are generally considered less sensitive and specific than mammography, making them less likely to detect cancer and more likely to result in false positives. Another issue is that this type of examination is highly subjective, and to a large extent, its effectiveness often depends on the skill and experience of the person performing the exam. The high incidence of false positives often leads to unnecessary invasive procedures for patients, alongside the significant psychological distress caused by the fear of having a potentially fatal disease, only to find out later it was a false alarm. Of course, false negatives are harmful as well, as they give the patient a misplaced sense of security and delay the correct diagnosis. To address some of these issues, a team of researchers from the University of Bristol has developed a robotic device that can perform CBEs and will ultimately be able to detect lumps at greater depths than before with the help of sensor technology.

While there have been previous attempts to build a robot or electronic device capable of physically examining breast tissue, recent advances in manipulation and sensor technology will finally make such devices possible. Created using a combination of 3D printing and computerised numerical control (CNC) technology, the device has already been tested on a fake silicon breast and its digital twin, both in a laboratory setting and in a virtual simulation. During these experiments, the team performed thousands of examinations to determine the device’s efficiency, with largely promising results. “We hope that the research can contribute to and complement the arsenal of techniques used to diagnose breast cancer, and to generate a large amount of data associated with it that may be useful in trying to identify large-scale trends that could help diagnose breast cancer early”, says lead author George Jenkinson. “One advantage that some doctors have mentioned anecdotally is that this could provide a low-risk way to objectively record health data. This could be used, for example, to compare successive examinations more easily, or as part of the information packet sent to a specialist if a patient is referred for further examination”. The researchers don’t plan to stop there, though. To improve the robot’s capabilities, they are now experimenting with incorporating AI as well. This will hopefully enable the device not only to detect lumps with higher accuracy than human examiners but also to do so at greater depths, allowing us to catch the disease at an early stage.

This robotic arm uses AI to destroy cancer cells

High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) is an innovative, minimally invasive procedure used to treat a variety of cancers. It works by focusing ultrasound energy to a precise point within the body, causing a rapid temperature increase at the target site that destroys cancerous tissue in a more precise, controlled manner. However, although HIFU is designed to minimise damage to surrounding tissues, there may still be a risk of inadvertent injury to nearby organs or structures, particularly if the treatment is near vital organs. Depending on the area being treated, there is also a potential risk of nerve damage, which could result in temporary or permanent changes in sensation or motor function. To resolve this problem, a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo has developed a robotic arm that uses AI to help doctors increase their accuracy and kill cancerous cells more efficiently without damaging healthy cells.

“Ultrasound imaging in HIFU is not easy for doctors. They need higher skills, they need training, and it’s not really accurate because it depends on the skill of the doctor if they can detect the updated area”, explains Moslem Sadeghi Goughari, lead researcher on the project. “Technically, it’s considered the biggest barrier for the HIFU treatment”. As the treatment takes place, the AI continuously compares the images taken by an ultrasound probe against those taken before the treatment, providing the doctors with a real-time overview of what happens in the targeted area. According to researchers, the system can detect with 93 per cent accuracy how much of cancerous tissue has been destroyed, allowing doctors to better control the treatment and minimise damage to healthy tissue. This could help reduce patient recovery time from an average of 10 days to just two days. Nevertheless, it may be a while before the system is ready for human trials. Its biggest limitation is that its accuracy is highly dependent on the training data, something the researchers hope to improve by partnering with doctors in South Korea.

“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”.

Professor Pietro Valdastri, the director of STORM Lab at the University of Leeds

Robot tentacle travels deep into the lungs to detect and kill cancer

A team of researchers from the University of Leeds have developed a tiny surgical robot that can reach deep into the lungs to detect cancerous tissue and destroy it. The robot is shaped like a tentacle and consists of multiple cylindrical segments made of ultra-soft silicone that are linked with each other. Each segment is approximately 80 millimetres long and embedded with tiny magnetic particles. This enables researchers to control its movements using magnets mounted onto a robotic arm. Another important feature is that each segment can move independently from the rest, allowing the robot to manoeuvre through the patient’s lungs more effectively by adapting its shape to the body’s anatomy. This could help address one of the biggest limitations of existing lung cancer detection methods, which require inserting an instrument called a bronchoscope through the patient’s nose into the bronchial passages in order to obtain a lung tissue sample. The main problem with this technique is that the size of the instrument (between 3.5 and 4 millimetres in diameter) prevents it from reaching the smaller tubes of the lungs. The robotic tentacle, on the other hand, is only 2.4 millimetres in diameter, which enables it to travel 37 per cent deeper into the lungs than the bronchoscope and reach some of the smallest bronchial tubes.

“This is a really exciting development”, says Professor Pietro Valdastri, the director of STORM Lab at the University of Leeds. “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”. So far, the tentacle has only been tested on the lungs of cadavers, so it may be years before it can be used on living patients. However, the researchers are convinced their method could significantly improve precision and safety, while at the same time reducing pain, discomfort, and recovery time for the patients. “Our goal was, and is, to bring curative aid with minimal pain for the patient”, says Giovanni Pittiglio, the study’s co-author. “Remote magnetic actuation enabled us to do this using ultra-soft tentacles which can reach deeper while shaping to the anatomy and reducing trauma”.

Two-handed robot performs brain surgery

Robots have indeed become an increasingly important feature in operating rooms in various medical disciplines where they have, in many instances, eliminated the need for invasive open surgery. This hasn’t yet been the case with neurosurgery, however. In this highly complex branch of surgery, robots are still mainly restricted to the role of assistants, tasked with inserting an electrode or performing other simple procedures. But when more complex operations are involved, such as removing a brain tumour, a surgeon still needs to open up the patient’s skull in order to reach the diseased tissue. Thanks to Pierre Dupont, chief of Pediatric Cardiac Bioengineering at Boston Children’s Hospital, this may be about to change. Dupont built a robot that can perform a wide range of very delicate tasks that are typically involved in removing a tumour from the brain.

The two-handed robot, which is controlled by a joystick, has already been tested in lab settings, where it successfully removed a pineal tumour from a 3D model of a 4-month-old patient’s brain. Among other things, the robot was able to pull back the capsule that surrounds the model tumour with one arm and keep it steady while using the other arm to cauterise the blood vessel, retract tissue to provide a clear line of sight, and remove the tumour fragments and dispose of them in a nearby suction tube. According to surgeons who tested the robot, it enabled them to perform these tasks faster than they would have been able to with manual instruments. Most importantly, they were able to do so without causing damage to the surrounding brain tissue. “This system is able to interact with tissue and handle contingencies, such as bleeding and controlling tumour debris, which puts it in a different category”, says Scellig Stone, a neurosurgeon who collaborated with Dupont in the development of the robot. “Other robotic systems just provide guidance”. While the robot is primarily designed to remove brain tumours, it will also have other applications, such as treating hydrocephalus, benign prostatic hyperplasia, and bladder tumours.

Closing thoughts

As we reach the end of this article, it’s impossible not to feel a surge of optimism. Cancer, a word that once spelt inevitable tragedy, is now being challenged by an arsenal of technological wonders that could soon tilt the scales in our favour. From robotic hands offering a new standard of care in breast cancer screening to the dual-armed robot that could one day delicately extract brain tumours, we’re witnessing a revolution in medical science. But as we stand on this brink of change, we must ask ourselves a crucial question: How do we harness these incredible advancements to not only save lives but also to bridge the gap between those who have access to cutting-edge treatments and those who do not? Could the true victory in the battle against cancer lie not just in the technology itself, but in our ability to share its life-saving potential with every human in every corner of the planet?

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