Scientists at the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt University have succeeded in allowing a needle robot to navigate autonomously in real time through a model of a living lung. The robot is able to traverse lung tissue without damaging it. The technology is intended to be used to detect and combat lung cancer, which is difficult or impossible to reach with conventional instruments such as standard or robotic bronchoscopes.
The robot makes it possible to reach particularly small target areas in the lungs and thus bridge the crucial centimeters or even millimeters, says Dr. Jason Akulian, one of the scientists involved in the study “Autonomous medical needle steering in vivo,” published in Science Robotics. The robot was developed in collaboration with researchers from medicine, computer science and engineering.
The robot itself consists of several separate components. The robot was laser etched from a nickel-titanium alloy. This makes it particularly flexible and can glide better through human tissue. An external mechanical control provides controlled forward and backward thrust, allowing the robot to move along curved paths and avoid obstacles. The robot can be equipped with attachments, such as a catheter, in order to be able to carry out biopsies.
In order to reach its destination with pinpoint accuracy, the needle robot must first know how to move there. To do this, the doctors take scans of the chest cavity in advance using a computer tomography (CT). From this they create a 3D model of the respiratory tract, blood vessels and the targeted target. Software uses artificial intelligence (AI) to determine a path through the tissue. The navigation software takes important structures into account, such as large blood vessels, which need to be avoided in order to get to the destination. This works in real time.
The software can also take breathing movements into account and thus take into account the lung expansion and compression that occurs when breathing. An operation on a living, breathing person is particularly complicated. Akulian says it’s like trying to shoot a moving target. This is why it is particularly important to take the movements of the lungs into account.
The researchers tested the technology on a laboratory model that imitates a living lung, i.e. also simulates breathing. The robot moves forward whenever the breath stops for a moment after taking a breath.
“There are still some nuances to the robot’s ability to acquire targets and then actually reach them effectively,” says Akulian. “We plan to continue developing new autonomous medical robots that combine the strengths of robotics and artificial intelligence to improve medical outcomes for patients facing a variety of health challenges, while providing guarantees for patient safety” , adds Ron Alterovitz, who led the study.
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