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Tiny robot represents possible novel approach for less invasive lung cancer detection and treatment

The use of magnetic tentacles offer a novel therapeutic and targeted approach for minimally invasive lung cancer detection and treatment, according to researchers from the University of Leeds.

The researchers developed a tiny, magnetically operated robot that is capable of travelling deep into the lungs and able to detect and treat the first signs of cancer. Their approach makes use of a 2.4 mm diameter, ultra-soft, patient-specific magnetic catheter – or tentacle – which can be delivered from the end of a standard bronchoscope to reach the periphery of the lungs. In addition, the tentacles possesses a laser fibre designed to enable targeted photo-thermal therapy to cancer cells.

In their study, which was published in Nature Engineering Communications, the team initially developed a three dimensional model of the bronchial tree, down to the sub-segmental bronchi, using data generated from a CT scan of the full lung. Once the tentacle was in position, laser light was delivered through the embedded fibre to induce thermal ablation of the tumour.

Following this initial and successful virtual experiment, the researchers next used the magnetic tentacle robot on the lungs of a cadaver. They were able to successfully navigate in three branches of the left bronchi, compared to only two using a standard catheter, which corresponded to a mean improvement in navigation depth of 37%.

Transforming lung cancer treatment

Commenting on the results, Professor Pietro Valdastri, the project‘s research supervisor, said: ‘This is a really exciting development. 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.‘

Lung cancer has the highest worldwide cancer mortality rate. In early-stage non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for around 84% of lung cancer cases, surgical intervention is the standard of care. In addition to being able to navigate within the lungs during a biopsy, the magnetic tentacle robot could pave the way for far less invasive treatment, allowing clinicians to target only cancer cells while allowing healthy tissue and organs to continue normal function.

Dr Giovanni Pittiglio, who carried out the research as part of his PhD, added: ‘Our goal was, and is, to bring curative aid with minimal pain for the patient. Remote magnetic actuation enabled us to do this using ultra-soft tentacles which can reach deeper, while shaping to the anatomy and reducing trauma.‘

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