Automation in oncology
In medicine – particularly in treating or operating on patients – robots still have their limitations. While they perform well in robotically assisted surgery, their use is still far from standard. This could be about to change, however, thanks to the SEON project at the University Hospital Erlangen, which is putting a Stäubli robot to use in oncology for the first time.
Up to now, most cancer patients have been prescribed surgery and/or chemotherapy. The latter is usually an arduous way for sufferers to fight tumors. This is because any chemotherapeutic course of treatment takes an immense toll on the body. The high-dose drugs necessary to fight cancer cells circulate through the body. In the process, they also affect healthy cells, weakening the patient.
The objective of the SEON research project is to open up completely new avenues for treating tumors through robotics. The idea is that solid tumors (metastases) would be precisely targeted as an alternative to chemo. For this purpose, the team in Erlangen has developed magnetic nanoparticles that serve as a means of transport for the drugs.
The robot chosen for this delicate mission is a large Stäubli TX200 six-axis robot equipped with a magnetic head. In a process called “magnetic drug targeting,” the magnetic head hovers over the patient’s body, directing the magnetic nanoparticles with the active ingredient directly to the tumor. Getting the theory to work in practice requires the efforts of physicians, mechanical engineers and robotics experts alike.
Stringent safety precautions incorporated into everyday hospital routines
Right from the start of the project, it became clear how crucial the pooling of expertise would be. Hospitals normally aim to bring in heavy equipment like X-ray machines or CT scanners at an early stage of construction, for example before the partition walls go in. In the case of the SEON project, however, the TX200 had to be installed while the hospital continued to go about its normal business.
This called for expert logistical planning. For the mechanical engineering firm MBFZ toolcraft GmbH and its partners, it meant opening up an external wall, lifting the pedestal and pre-assembled robot into the building, and closing the wall up again - ideally without disrupting the clinic’s daily routines.
To enable the installation of the TX200 in compliance with highest safety standards, the floor of the treatment room underwent static testing in advance and was reinforced to receive the two-ton machine. After the robot was carefully maneuvered into its precisely calculated position, concrete was poured around the base to ensure that it could operate safely while making full use of its degrees of freedom.
With the connection of the electrical and control systems, the TX200 was almost ready to go into action after just a few hours. The next step of the project was for the robot to be set up and programmed by experts from Stäubli.
To ensure that the doctors at University Hospital Erlangen could safely use the Stäubli robot for their research, intensive training was needed. Two doctors from the hospital received several days of technical training on the controls and operating panel of the TX200 at Stäubli headquarters in Bayreuth. The goal was to safely operate the TX200 on a dummy in the oncology department to advance their research into magnetic drug targeting.
The robotics experts at Stäubli focused particularly on the issue of safety. Unlike in an industrial environment, the TX200 has no shielding to protect the operator. This is because in a clinical setting, it is necessary for humans and robots to work together in a confined space to provide optimal treatment to patients. A first for Stäubli!