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Lung biopsies guided by CT scans take about one hour and expose patients to the risk of serious complications. But a group of MIT and University of Cambridge graduate students has engineered a better way to conduct lung biopsies.

With $4,000 from the Cambridge, MA-based Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology and support from mechanical engineering professor Alex Slocum ‘82, SM ‘83, PhD ‘85, and Massachusetts General Hospital radiologist Rajiv Gupta, the students took three months to create a machine called Robopsy that they believe will lead to safer, shorter biopsy procedures.

Currently, a doctor performing a biopsy must insert a needle manually into the lung, with little or no sense of its proximity to the tumor. Because CT scans use radiation, the doctor “must exit the CT room, scan the patient to verify the position of the tumor and the needle, stop the radiation, reenter the room, and advance the needle manually,” says Nevan Hanumara, a mechanical engineering graduate student who worked on Robopsy.

Conor Walsh, another mechanical engineering grad student who worked on the project, points out that the CT machine “gives very high-resolution images, but still, at the end of the day, a doctor sticks the needle in by hand, lines the needle up…by eye.”

The Robopsy prototype, which earned a $5,000 prize at the 2005 MIT Ideas competition, consists of a lightweight, disposable plastic stand that both holds and manipulates the biopsy needle. The stand can be strapped on top of the patient. A doctor in the next room, protected from the radiation, uses a laptop to control the movement of the needle based on real-time CT scan images.

Hanumara and Walsh say their device could be used for other biopsies, such as those of the breast. They have filed a provisional patent and will begin testing Robopsy on animals, the first step to FDA approval. – By Katherine Bourzac, SM ‘04

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