Navigating Cancer Treatment With The Tiniest Of Tools

A new soft robotic laser could allow surgeons to conduct head and neck surgeries without damaging critical structures in the vicinity.

AsianScientist (Sep. 16, 2021) – Looking for a tool with more wiggle room? Researchers have developed a soft robotic laser microsurgery system that can be used for head and neck surgery even during an MRI. Published in Science Robotics, the device has proven successful when tested within a human cadaver.

As the seventh most common cancer in the world, head and neck cancer leads to roughly 450,000 deaths every year and is typically treated with laser ablative therapy. This is done by using targeted lasers to destroy small tumors. Unfortunately, without the ability to accurately visualize and navigate oral and pharyngeal cavities, surgeons run the risk of damaging critical healthy structures within the head and neck.

To make treatment more precise, a joint research team from The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and The University of Hong Kong (HKU) developed an MRI-compatible soft robot designed to combine surgery with MRI imagery.

Typically, the confined and highly magnetic space within an MRI machine is incompatible with surgical devices. To deftly navigate the tight corners of the head and neck while offering accurate imaging, the research team ensured their soft robotic endoscope was millimeter-scale and exhibited zero electromagnetic interference with MRI.

Set to change the game for head and neck cancer treatment, the device is powered with soft robotics actuators, made with MRI-compatible materials and directed by a learning-based controller for efficient navigation.

After testing the device on a cadaver’s head in the MRI, the flexible and lightweight laser device precisely zapped tissues deep within the cadaver’s bodily cavities. Without repositioning the cadaver, surgeons could see 3D resections of target tissues as well as a thermal map—allowing them to navigate the space and target tiny areas of damaged tissue with extreme accuracy.

“By miniaturizing its size, it will be possible for the robot to access more confined sites such as the nasal cavity and sinus cavity. We will also implement some specific image sequences so that the images can be fed back to the robot in a faster way,” said corresponding author Dr Ka Wai Kwok from HKU.

The article can be found at: Fang et al. (2021) Soft Robotic Manipulator for Intraoperative MRI-guided Transoral Laser Microsurgery.


Source: Chinese University of Hong Kong; Photo: Shutterstock.
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