Could this robot help diagnose lung cancer?

STORY: Doctors hope this robot can help produce safer and more accurate lung cancer diagnoses.

With 125,000 people in the U.S. dying each year of lung cancer according to the National Cancer Institute – doctors agree that early detection can save lives.

But when a patient's screening detects troubling signs, such as nodules, a biopsy may be needed.

“The robot is thin, so it can actually get to a lot more branches than we currently can with our current bronchoscopes." / "I see this as the, yes, as the future.” / “A part of my job as a pulmonologist is to help patients when they have abnormal CT scans.”

Dr. Alexander Zider is at Sutter Health’s Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame, California.

He has used the new Ion bronchoscopy robot on three patients so far.

“Some nodules are too small to biopsy. But other nodules, we have to biopsy to determine if there's cancer or not. This tool allows us to go after almost any nodule in the lung to try to provide patients with diagnostic certainty.”

The robot allows doctors to navigate the lungs with a virtual map produced from a CT scan.

During the procedure, it provides a real-time view of the lungs as the catheter enters the breathing tubes.

It also helps doctors determine how far the needle used in a biopsy can be safely inserted without causing a lung collapse, Zider said.

"And so this allows us to one: get to the nodules that radiology could not otherwise get to. Two: biopsy nodules from the inside, which has a much lower risk of lung collapse that radiology may have not wanted to do in the first place, or three: for really suspicious nodules allow us to do both diagnosis and staging at the same time."

He hopes the ability of the robot to find, biopsy, and even mark tough-to-reach nodules will help reduce anxiety in patients.

Zider is now looking to the future - and how lung cancer treatment could be improved.

“We can put markers in to help the surgeon cut out less of the lung than we would traditionally. There may or may not in the future be ways that we can treat lung cancer from the inside, without having to sign patients to radiation or surgery.”