Fibre-optic bot could seek out and treat cancers

Researchers at Imperial College London’s Hamlyn Centre are working on a fibre-optic robot the width of a human hair that could track down cancers and accurately deliver drugs.

A magnified image of fibre-bot (Credit: Imperial College London)

The ‘fibre-bots’ project is part of a wider precision surgery programme at Imperial, backed with £6.5m in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Made of a flexible hollow optical fibre, the devices will be controlled by a surgeon once inserted into a patient via an orifice, helping to detect and treat conditions of the breast, throat, lungs, and gastrointestinal system.

“We believe the new fibre-bot has great potential,” said Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, director of the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College London and leader of the project.

“One example of a disease where we think it could prove useful is in ductal carcinoma, an early stage of breast cancer that often begins in the milk ducts. In theory, a flexible robot of this size would be able to travel inside the milk duct, map the extent of the disease, and enable reliable and repeatable treatments at the microscopic level to be administered by surgeons. This could minimise the trauma on patients and improve how they recover.”

“Another example of where you might use fibre-bot is in cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, where it could travel to the small ductal systems in regions of the body such as the pancreas, which are not currently easy to access non-invasively, to diagnose and treat the cancer at a much earlier stage.”

During surgery, the robot will be able to provide visual information, while haptic technology will give constant sensory feedback to the surgeon. As the fibre will be hollow, it will be able to deliver targeted medication to specific areas. The five-year project will aim to produce a prototype for lab trials, with clinical trials set to follow if the research is successful.