Robot That Detects Breast Cancer Developed

The prototype could prove more accurate than mammograms.

By Joel Davies -

Its name is MAMMOBOT, and it’s a robot that detects breast cancer.  The small robot can pass through mammary ducts to detect early precursors of invasive breast cancers that often originate in these ducts and get missed by mammography. The new robotic technology was invented by researchers from the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, and Imperial College London.

The project was led by Dr Christos Bergeles from King’s College London and Dr Daniel Leff from Imperial. Together, they invented “growing robots” that unroll when pressure is applied. The technology can grow inside the lumen – cavities like vessels – without causing harm.

The robot couldn’t be steered originally, but Dr Hadi Sadati created a basic model of the growing and steerable elements, showing that the robot’s shape could adequately be predicted so the team knew how to steer it inside the anatomy.

The engineers on the project then added steering capabilities to the growing robot and Dr Pierre Berthet-Rayne created the first version of the MAMMOBOT that is able to both grow and steer, with an overall diameter of around 2mm. “The 2mm robot elongates to conform to the ductal tree, and the steerable catheter bends to move the tip to the appropriate branch,” Dr Bergeles said.

Researchers say the novelty in the development processes lie in the bespoke manufacturing approach of the adaptation of the “growing robot” concept to incorporate elements from steerable catheters, and tailored controllers.

The robot detects breast cancer via insertion into the mammary duct.

There has been significant growth in the use of robots in medical settings to assist where human senses, including vision and touch, cannot match their precision or consistency. Areas include preventive medicine, scans and surgeries. The MAMMOBOT in particular is one in a number of robots being developed to aid against cancer.

Last year, a robot-assisted procedure took place at Maastricht University Medical Center, in the Netherlands. It alleviated a common complication of breast cancer surgery by helping a specialist surgeon divert thread-like lymphatic vessels, as narrow as 0.3mm, around scar tissue in the patients’ armpits, and connect them to nearby blood vessels.

The MAMMOBOT research project was developed during a sandpit, co-organised by Cancer Research UK and EPSRC, which was designed to identify robotic technologies that can lead to early detection of cancer. The researchers are working now on recreating the setup in a more robust fashion, using better motors and components. The steering technology is considered in a patent application but the team is keen to explore licensing opportunities in the UK and internationally.

For further information on the project, you can visit King’s College London’s website.

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