Breast cancer is the most common cancer among females in the EU. Important for the diagnosis are imaging examinations, such as mammography, ultrasound or magnetic resonance tomography (MRI). But, at the end of the day, biopsy is the only true detection of cancer. However, it is undisputed that biopsy risks and can harm the patient’s procedure. The MURAB (MRI and Ultrasound Robotic Assisted Biopsy) project is developing technology that will make it possible to take more precise and effective biopsies (tissue samples) and diagnose cancer and other illnesses faster. It is creating a robot that will scan a patient’s body using a combination of MRI and ultrasound technology, and select the right location for a biopsy.

The project is creating a robot that will scan a patient’s body using a combination of MRI and ultrasound technology, and select the right location for a biopsy. (c) MURAB

This will be quicker and more comfortable for patients, and will have the potential to identify early-stage signs of cancer that conventional ultrasounds may not pick up as well as reduce the likelihood of false negative results. Current screening techniques result in 10-20% of patients being wrongly informed that they do not have breast cancer. With this new technology scans will take 15-20 minutes (instead of 45-60 minutes for a standard MRI scan). It will also allow patients to benefit from MRI scanning technology, which is highly accurate and very safe, without its high costs.

Currently MURAB is focusing on the diagnosis of breast cancer and also muscle diseases, although it should ultimately help with any diagnosis for which a small section of tissue needs to be removed from the body. A robotically-steered device will take an image using MRI and overlay it with images taken by ultrasound and pressure sensors: the sharper MRI image will be able to locate signs of potential disease in the less clear ultrasound.

A biopsy robot will then take a tissue sample for analysis. This process has some advantages for the patients. First, the roboters have a calmer hand and do not get tired. Second, you can convert the doctor’s movement so that the robotic arm moves only by millimeters. That means they can make the smallest cuts with the utmost precision, thus hurting less tissue, causing less pain and making the procedure more bearable.

The process will use an innovative technique called Tissue Active Slam (TAS) which combines elements of different diagnostic procedures, including elastography (measuring whether tissue is hard or soft). The project is cross-disciplinary, combining elements of medical imaging and robotics, and involves collaboration between hospitals, universities and manufacturers of medical equipment. Project participants are also working on an MRI-compatible robot, which could be used to carry out some procedures inside a scanner.

The research project

Project partners include the company KUKA Medical Robotics, Siemens Nederland N.V., the University of Verona (UNIVR), the Medical University of Vienna and the Radboud University Medical Center (RUMD) in the Netherlands. The EU is supporting the project with around 4 million euros.

The official launch of the project was part of the annual European Robotics Summit 2016 in the Netherlands and is expected to be completed by the end of 2019. At the Medica 2018, the prototype was presented and gave hope for a new future in breast cancer diagnostics.