‘Feeling tumors’: UT Austin, MD Anderson tech lets doctors better detect and cure fatal cancers

Simple Health

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and MD Anderson Cancer Center are joining forces to better detect, diagnose and cure many common and fatal types of cancers.

According to the two UT System institutions, the goal is to combine the best expertise to improve patient outcomes.

“MD Anderson has some of the best oncologists in the world, and they see firsthand, every day, where innovation could help them more easily diagnose or treat their patients,” said Jennifer Lyon Gardner, deputy vice president for research at UT Austin, whose team helped blueprint the research collaboration. “That’s where the idea to pair them with UT’s outstanding roboticists, fundamental scientists and translational and clinical researchers in our own Dell Medical School emerged.”

So far, five teams have been created, each co-led by a UT researcher and an MD Anderson oncologist.

Researchers say one team is designing robotic endoscopes for colonoscopy and gastroscopy procedures that will enable doctors to “feel” tumors and polyps through very sensitive haptic feedback sensors.

They say the device is the missing link in helping with early detection.

“We create a robot that recreates that touch for the clinician [as if] their hands are inside the body,” UT engineer Farshid Alambeigi said.

Alambeigi says this will help determine the size and stage of the tumor more accurately, especially in cancers that affect internal organs. He says this will also help create a better treatment plan that focuses on killing the cancer with only a minimal amount of damage to the healthy part of the body.

MD Anderson assistant professor and surgical oncologist Naruhiko Ikoma said during surgical procedures, he and other doctors relied on their sense of touch to find hidden small tumors, determine their extent and feel how deeply they were growing into the lining. But during routine endoscopic procedures or laparoscopic/robotic operations, doctors have only the camera’s visual information, and their ability to find and examine tumors is severely limited.

“Developing a sense of touch in robotics is challenging,” Alambeigi said. “So is developing the system for sending that information back to the doctor and then miniaturizing the technology so it can be built into a surgical scope, but it will give doctors much better information.”

For cancer survivors like Candice Hunter, a registered nurse who was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma during the pandemic, finding cancer early was key to her survival.

“It’s because of early detection that I am where I am at, that I only had so much cell growth and only needed so much chemotherapy and not radiation,” Hunter explained.

Researchers say this improved information will help determine what should be biopsied, and it may also reduce the number of CT scans, which deliver ionizing radiation, that a patient requires.

Researchers are working on this project in different phases, including research, creating the device and testing it out on tumors. They say it should be completed in five to six years.

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