‘Molecularly aware’ robotics to improve cancer surgeries

Researchers at Imperial College London are aiming for improved cancer surgeries through development of a semi-autonomous surgical robotics platform.

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The proposed platform will combine the use of a surgical laser, microscope and molecular analysis device, allowing for faster and more accurate identification and removal of cancerous cells. 

Principal investigator Dr Zoltan Takats, professor of analytical chemistry at Imperial, explained how the EPSRC-funded project, named MARS (Molecularly Aware Robotics for Surgery) formed as a continuation of his work over the last ten years around mass spectrometry guided surgery. 

“Throughout the years, it became more and more clear that the adoption of the technology is not happening not because there is no need for it, but because the environment where it would fit doesn’t exist yet,” he told The Engineer. 

Takats said that the team began to explore deploying the mass spectrometry imaging method for molecular analysis in surgical robotics and surgical navigation, finding that this had potential to deliver numerous benefits compared with a traditional open surgery approach.

Described as being like a small tent which would be set up over the tumour, the new system would include a fibre-like probe containing the laser, microscope and analysis tools. Through computer direction guided by the surgeon, the probe would be able to scan tens of millimetre squared areas in a second, locating cancerous tissue with cellular precision using the microscopic device and evaporating the tumour tissue with the laser.

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“We expect much better accuracy than any currently used manual method,” Takats said. “Instead of relying on surgical dexterity, the computer is actually ablating tissue up to the point where there are no more tumour cells to be removed in the area.”

Current methods of removing tumours involve pre-surgery ultrasound and X-Ray procedures, which can result in a lengthy process taking place across multiple hospital visits. As it is almost impossible for healthy tissue to be distinguished from cancerous tissue by its look, intensive operations are commonly required, including careful inspection of removed cancer tissues under a microscope.

Through the new model, the Imperial team hopes to minimise complications of surgery and make previously inoperable cases operable, as well as providing potential for cancer surgeries to be performed as faster outpatient procedures.

Takats said that the researchers aim to produce a prototype by the end of 2022, with clinical feasibility trials expected to take place around three years from now and an additional two to three years predicted to allow for approval and entry into mainstream surgical practice.