A new £8m project has been launched to develop robotic technology that can detect and remove cancer tumours.
Led by scientists at the University of Warwick, the Terabotics project will combine probes that can detect cancer tumours through the skin with high-precision robotic surgery developed for use in hospital settings for the first time.
The probes use terahertz radiation, also known as T-rays, to scan for tumours under the skin, while medical-grade surgical robots will be adapted to use these scans to guide them in removing tumours in skin and colorectal cancer patients more precisely.
Real-time cancer diagnosis
Researchers hope this technology could lead to real-time diagnosis for cancer patients, shorter waiting periods for cancer surgery, and more comprehensive removal of tumours with reduced need for follow-up surgery.
The five-year project, which has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, will start in September 2021. It is a collaboration between the University of Warwick, University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire, University of Leeds, and the University of Exeter.
Researchers aim to eventually trial the technology with patients attending cancer services at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.
Terabotics will use research from the University of Warwick into terahertz (THz) radiation, which sit in between infrared and WiFi on the electromagnetic spectrum. Previous work from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics has shown that these can be used to detect very subtle changes in the outermost layers of skin, and the technique has already been demonstrated on healthy volunteers. This will be the first time that it will be studied in patients within an active cancer process.
As well as assessing how effective T-ray technology is in diagnosing cancers compared to standard care, the project aims to incorporate the technology into surgical robots to guide them more accurately when detecting tumours during colonoscopy and removing them during surgery.
Principal Investigator Professor Emma Pickwell-MacPherson, from the University of Warwick Department of Physics, said: “What we will be testing is our hypothesis that we are able to detect a buried or hidden tumour. We think our terahertz probe will be able to detect those through looking at the transient response of the skin.
“Somebody might already be diagnosed with cancer but the actual extent of that cancer may not be known. For example, in skin cancer patients, the THz probe will image the visible tumour and the surrounding area to better determine the extent of the tumour that is beneath the surface. This will enable the whole tumour to be removed in one go, rather than incrementally. In turn, this enables better planning for reconstruction and speeds up the procedure.”
Initially, the researchers will focus on adapting the T-ray probes to work with the surgical robots, miniaturisation of the technology and refining the design to provide more diagnostic parameters.
Later stages of the project will involve trialling the technology with patients with a known or suspected cancer. Those attending cancer services at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire will be offered the opportunity to participate alongside their routine care. Colorectal cancer patients will be seen at the University of Leeds, where an endoscopic probe is being developed specifically to examine the colon. Just like our skin, the colon is an epithelial lining and could potentially be scanned by T-rays in the same way.
At present, diagnosis of skin cancer relies upon a visual inspection by a clinician and a biopsy.
Professor Joseph Hardwicke, Medical Lead for the project at University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire, said: “This technique is a way to examine the skin at a deeper and more technical level than what we are able to at the moment. The main hope, especially for skin cancer, is to determine the extent of the spread locally and also to potentially diagnose these cancers without the need for a biopsy in future.”