Bladder Cancer: Telerobotic System Designed to Treat Better


Photo: Researcher

Researcher operating the bladder cancer telerobot in a glass flask about the size of a human bladder; © Joe Howell/Vanderbilt

Although bladder cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer in the United States and the most expensive to treat, the basic method that doctors use to treat it has not changed much in more than 70 years. An interdisciplinary collaboration of engineers and doctors at Vanderbilt and Columbia Universities intends to change that situation dramatically.

Headed by Doctor Nabil Simaan, the team has developed a prototype telerobotic platform designed to be inserted through natural orifices – in this case the urethra – that can provide surgeons with a much better view of bladder tumors so they can diagnose them more accurately. It is also designed to make it easier to remove tumors from the lining of the bladder regardless of their location: an operation called transurethral recession. "When I observed my first transurethral resection, I was amazed at how crude the instruments are and how much pushing and stretching of the patient's body is required," Simaan said.

That experience inspired the engineer to develop a system that uses micro-robotics to perform this difficult type of surgery. The specialized telerobotic system "does not take the judgment out of surgeons' hands, it enhances their capabilities and hopefully gives them surgical superpowers," commented Doctor S. Duke.

The traditional method, which Simaan observed, involves inserting a rigid tube called a resectoscope through the urethra and into the bladder. The instrument contains several channels that allow the circulation of fluid, provide access for an endoscope for observation and interchangeable cauterizing tools used to obtain biopsy tissue for evaluating the malignancy of the tumor and to resect small tumors. In some operations, surgeons replace the cauterizing tool with an optical-fiber laser to destroy tumor cells.

Although the endoscope can give a good view of the bladder lining directly across from the opening of the urethra, inspecting the other areas is more difficult. The medical team must press and twist the scope or push on the patient's body to bring other areas into view. These contortions are also necessary when removing tumors in less accessible areas.

If the surgeon, using endoscopic observation or biopsy, determines that a tumor is invasive and has penetrated the muscle layer, then he later performs a cystectomy that removes the entire bladder through an incision in the abdomen. Frequently this is done using a normal surgical robot. But, when the surgeon judges that the tumor is superficial — restricted to the bladder lining — then he attempts to remove it using the resectoscope.

"Because you are working through a long, rigid tube, this can be a difficult procedure, especially in some areas of the bladder," said Herrell.

The telerobotic system is designed specifically to operate in this challenging environment. The machine itself is the size and shape of a large thermos bottle but its business end is only 5.5 millimeters in diameter – about one fifth of an inch – and consists of a segmented robotic arm. The tiny arm can curve through 180 degrees, allowing it to point in every direction including directly back at its entry point. At the tip of the arm is a white light source, an optical fiber laser for cauterization, a fiberscope for observation and a tiny forceps for gripping tissue.; Source: Vanderbilt University