Novel robot eases cancer treatment

Two universities have jointly developed a groundbreaking robotic device to treat head and neck cancer, which researchers say is less invasive than traditional forms of treatment and spares patients from remaining in “extreme” body positions during surgery.

Developed by medical and engineering experts from Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong, the soft robotic system is largely made of a special form of plastic.

Compared to the conventional way, where a straight metal tube extends into the patient’s mouth, the new system enables safe treatment of tumors, thanks to its high flexibility in shape and length.

The new system can direct energy delivery to the target region through a dental anchorage in the mouth.

In addition, it offers real-time monitoring during the operation as the magnetic resonance thermal imaging used can evaluate the heat diffusion in tissue.

“Based on the imaging, you can have an idea pretty accurately that you are removing the tumor to the depth you want to achieve, while preserving structures that you do not want to damage,” said Jason Chan Ying-kuen, associate professor of the department of otorhinolaryngology, head and neck surgery, of CU Medicine.

Chan, who led the research, said at yesterday’s press conference that the new system can spare patients from staying in “extreme positions” as they will no longer have to retract the tongue, open the mouth wide or over- extend the neck to provide sufficient tumor exposure for laser delivery.

The innovation has been published in the international journal Science Robotics, but it will take a further five to 10 years before being used in hospitals, as it is now undergoing testing.

The team is planning to further reduce the robot size, which can enable the robot to access more confined sites such as the nasal cavity and sinus cavity.

“We will also implement some specific image sequences so that the images can be fed back to the robot in a faster way,” said Kwok Ka-wai, associate professor of the department of mechanical engineering of the faculty of engineering at HKU.

The seventh most common cancer in the world, head and neck cancer includes cancers in areas such as the oral cavity, laryngopharynx, nasopharynx and nasal cavity and leads to 450,000 deaths annually.

While head and neck cancer is not one of the top 10 cancers in Hong Kong according to the statistics from Hong Kong Cancer Registry in 2018, researchers said citizens should still be aware of the cancer, which is associated with smoking and alcohol consumption, and affects patients’ breathing and eating.

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