Snake-like robotic device fighting cancer: medicine's next big thing?

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- From removing otherwise inoperable brain tumors to diagnosing cancer in the deepest recesses of the lungs, new, snakelike robotic devices promise to do just that. Surgeons are now on the cusp of being able to bring hope to patients where none had been before.

The McLartys have been through a lot in their 29-year marriage, including Donna's diagnosis with a growth hormone tumor a decade ago.

One of her first symptoms, "The orthodontist said you have a tongue of the man twice your size," Donna told ABC30.

She also went up two shoe sizes and grew almost four inches. Donna said, "I was always 4'9". I grew to 5'0". I'm 5'1" now."

Since the tumor sits deep in the skull, surgeons have been unable to remove it.

"I live with the risk of having a stroke at any time. I could have a heart attack. I could have pancreatic cancer," she told ABC30.

Now, a new surgical device being developed by a team lead by Ron Alterovitz, PhD, Associate Professor at UNC at Chapel Hill could help.

Alterovitz told ABC30, "We're building this four-tube robot that can be used for skull-based surgery."

Surgeons like Brent Senior, MD, professor of otolaryngology at UNC at Chapel Hill, can use the steerable robots to not only pinpoint the tumor, but navigate through the skull to remove it.

"We could tell the computer, this is where we need to access, now avoid all of those structures and get us to that point," Dr. Senior said.

The team is also developing a robotic steerable needle that physicians like Richard Feins, MD, Professor of Surgery at UNC at Chapel Hill, can use in the lungs to diagnose abnormal growths.

Dr. Feins told ABC30, "Getting there to figure out what they are, or getting there to do something about them has been a challenge." Two new ways to use robots are on the horizon.

The robotic devices have the potential to move through the body so precisely that they can reach their target within a millimeter, all while avoiding anatomical obstacles.

For more information on this report, please contact:
Tom Hughes

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