Researchers at the University of Twente (UT) are working on a robot that can perform biopsies using a combination of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. They expect this robot to improve results when diagnosing breast cancer and muscle disease.
Current technology has a 10 – 20% fail rate, meaning it misses nearly 1 in 5 breast cancers, according to UT researcher Foad Sojoodi Farimani. Farimani is one of the project leaders in the European research project MRI and Ultrasound Robotic Assisted Biopsy, or MURAB.
Farimani’s goal is to make a dramatic reduction in the fail rate of the current technology. “If a mammography shows a suspicious image, a tissue sample (biopsy) is taken and sent to the laboratory for analysis. But it is difficult to determine exactly where the biopsy must take place. Far too often cancers are overlooked. This is the challenge we want to address.”
Costly MRI and cheap ultrasound
A biopsy using the MRI-scanner is an option, says Farimani. “MRIs emit no radiation, have no side effects, you can determine exactly where the biopsy needs to take place. The downside, however, is that MRIs are a very costly procedure. Not only the machine itself, but also in terms of time: it costs between 45 and 60 minutes, sometimes longer, to examine one single patient. Even countries with the most developed healthcare systems find mass screenings using MRIs prohibitively expensive.”
The researchers are working with the German companies Siemens and KUKA Industrial Robotics, as well as the universities of Verona and Vienna, in developing a robot that combines the best aspects of MRI scanners together with the less expensive, and less accurate, techniques the likes of ultrasound and pressure sensors.
The result is that patients are only required to spend between 15 and 20 minutes in the MRI scanner. “The resulting MRI image is then taken ‘offline’ where you then conduct the biopsy using the online images through an ultrasound sensor,” says Farimani. “One of the biggest challenges of this project is to actually find the suspicious tissue, which is clear in the razor sharp images of the MRI, in the somewhat more cloudy images of the ultrasound image.”
In addition to breast cancer, Farimani and his colleagues are also applying this new method of biopsies to muscle diseases. Eventually, according to Farimani, this technology should be applicable to any diagnostic research where a tissue sample is needed from a human body.
Collaboration with hospitals
There are a number of hospitals also involved with the research project, namely the Radboud MC (Nijmegen) and the Hospital Group Twente (ZGT – Hengelo, Almelo). The UT works closely with these partners in order to make sure the technology aligns with the needs of the market. “The robotics in this project aren’t the hard part. But making sure the resulting technology has a good fit to the market – that’s easier said than done,” says Farimani.
The official launch of the MURAB project took place during the annual European Robotics Summit, 12 – 15 January, 2016, held this year at the University of Twente. MURAB has secured a subsidy from Horizon2020 totaling €4.3 million. €1.2 million of this subsidy has been allotted as a project management fee for the university. In addition to Faramani are professors Stefano Stramigioli, who will function as project leader, and Ferdi van der Heijden.