Vanderbilt engineering professor helps develop innovative robotic technology to fight lung cancer

Robert J. Webster III, Richard A. Schroeder Professor of Mechanical Engineering and associate professor of medicine and urology at Vanderbilt University, is part of a cross-disciplinary team that has developed novel robotic technology using bronchoscopic steerable needles that could aid in early detection of lung cancer.

Physician uses robotic system to target lung nodules.

The researchers conducted their study in vivo and published their findings in the journal Science Robotics.

Besides Webster, the team is comprised of physicians Fabien Maldonado and Erin Gillespie at Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Alan Kuntz, the study’s lead author and assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Kahlert School of Computing and Robotics Center; Ron Alterovitz, professor in the Department of Computer Science at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the study’s principal investigator; and pulmonologist Jason Akulian at UNC Medical Center.

The robotic system used the bronchoscopic needles to steer through the lung parenchyma to safely biopsy nodules that are currently inaccessible bronchoscopically.

Current approaches for accessing suspicious nodules for biopsy either are unable to accurately reach them in the lung or risk pneumothorax (lung collapse), researchers say, which is a particularly significant risk for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Compared to percutaneous biopsy, researchers say the new system decreases the risk of pneumothorax since the needles are deployed from within the lung, without puncturing the pleura, or membranes enveloping the lungs.

According to the American Cancer Society, there were more than 238,000 new cases of lung cancer in the United States this year, and more than 127,000 deaths from the disease.

“Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to survival,” said Webster, who specializes in surgical robotics. “This research has the potential to enhance public health by enabling low-risk, reliable access to nodules throughout the lung for early-stage, definitive diagnosis of lung cancer.”

Webster is co-founder of startup companies Virtuoso Surgical and EndoTheia Inc., which earlier this year received a breakthrough device designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


Contact: Lucas Johnson,