Robotic device helps remove tumours in throats

Two local universities have jointly developed what researchers describe as a groundbreaking robotic device to treat head and neck cancer, which is said to be less invasive than traditional forms of treatment and spare patients from remaining in “extreme” body positions during surgery.

Medical and engineering experts from Chinese University and University of Hong Kong came up with the device that is largely made of a special form of plastic.

It is bendable, has a high flexibility in terms of shape and length, and can remove tumours in throats more precisely.

Traditionally, a straight metal tube extends into the patient’s mouth.

Jason Chan, Associate Professor of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at Chinese University, led the research. He said thanks to the new technology, patients no longer have to stay in extreme body positions for a long period of time during surgery.

“You have the patient with neck extended, mouths open really wide, sometimes you have to use sutures to pull their tongue really out of the mouth and forward, these extreme position are not suitable for all patients,” he said.

“With the small profile flexible robotic system, we may not need to use such extreme positions and still get where we need to go.”

Chan added that elderly patients and people with small jaws will especially benefit.

In traditional nasal surgery, patients will have to go through an MRI beforehand so doctors can look at images of the organ. But Chan said the new device shows images live during surgery, allowing doctors to operate more precisely.

“With the real time imaging, for example the thermal imaging… you can tell how deep you are going, you can base on this imaging, have an idea pretty accurately that you are removing the tumour to the depth you want to achieve, while preserving structures that you don’t want to damage,” he said.

Catherine Chan, clinical tutor from Chinese University’s Faculty of Medicine, said although head and neck cancer is not as common as lung cancer in Hong Kong, it’s associated with smoking and alcohol consumption, so people should stay vigilant.

“It is the region where affects the function of the patient mostly… including breathing, as well as eating,” she said.

The robotic device will now undergo testing, and researchers hope it can be put to use within a decade.