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Robot Does Breast Biopsy

A unique robot for breast exams and breast biopsy is being developed at Duke University. In a recent set of experiments, the robot prototype was able to detect a simulated "lesion" in a sponge "breast" and pinpoint its location. The robot then used its robotic arm to perform a limited biopsy (in which a small amount of tissue is removed with a special needle).

"After detecting the 'lesion' in a simulated breast, the robot was able to calculate its position and then guide a biopsy [needle] to its exact location," said Ned Light, an engineer in the laboratory of Stephen Smith, director of the Duke University Ultrasound Transducer Group and senior member of the research team.

{{ video="LS_090217_BreastBiopsy" title="Robotic Breast Biopsy" caption="Guided solely by 3-D ultrasound images, an autonomous robot places its biopsy needle precisely on a metallic target within a Nerf ball." }} 

The tabletop robot uses a unique 3-dimensional ultrasound technology developed at Duke to feed digital images to the robot's artificial intelligence software. The robot "sees" into the body in real-time, and uses this information to guide a biopsy probe to a targeted mass.

"Based on the results we've seen in our laboratory, I am confident that within five to 10 years, robots will be performing routine breast biopsies," Smith said.

The idea of a fully robotic breast exam has already been implemented; see Remote-Controlled Robotic Hand Performs Breast Exams for more information. Also, the US government is working on robotic systems that are able to care for battlefield patients; the Trauma Pod Battlefield Medical Treatment System is one example.

I encountered the first clear idea of this kind of capability in 1969, while reading The Andromeda Strain by (Harvard-educated doctor) Michael Crichton. In the novel, he describes a completely automated patient exam table.

"Hall entered a booth and closed the door behind him. There was a couch, and a mass of complex equipment. In front of the couch was a television screen, which showed several lighted points.

"'Sit down,' said a flat mechanical voice. 'Sit down. Sit down.'

"He sat on the couch.

"'Observe the screen before you. Place your body on the couch so that all points are obliterated.'

"He looked at the screen. He now saw that the points were arranged in the shape of a man... " (Read more about Crichton's Electronic Body Analyzer)

Science fiction readers will probably also think about Larry Niven's autodoc from his classic 1970 novel Ringworld, which was able to diagnose patients and perform complex surgical procedures. We're not quite there yet, but this Duke University prototype is a remarkable step along the way.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of

Bill Christensen catalogues the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers at his website, Technovelgy. He is a contributor to Live Science.