As we mourn the loss of lives and treasure in last week’s Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences rocket crashes, it’s useful to remember that space is not just a place toward which we launch expensive and highly experimental technology. A lot of the gadgetry developed for the space program comes back to Earth to help us lead more productive, interesting, and healthy lives. Case in point is a newly developed robotic system that’s supposed to live on the International Space Station finding another use as an interventional radiology assistant helping to fight breast cancer.
The Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR) was developed by the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation for the Canadian Space Agency to allow doctors at ground level to perform various procedures on patients orbiting at 200 miles above the Earth. But before it’s used on astronauts, the robot will be helping physicians to sample and ablate breast cancer tumors in a Quebec City hospital.
The robot works inside an MRI machine, which a radiologist uses to identify suspected lesions. Once spotted, the physician recommends a path for the robot to drive a biopsy needle to the site, while the robot reviews the instructions and can recommend a different approach. Once everyone is on the same page, the robot can proceed to follow the agreed path and autonomously perform the biopsy. Confirmed tumors are approached with an ablation needle in a similar fashion to eradicate the diseased tissue.
This fall the robot will begin clinical trials, which may be an early step to getting it up to the International Space Station. We are particularly curious as to what it takes to also deliver and maintain an MRI machine up there.