Researchers at the University of Bristol have developed new robotic technology that could improve the way women monitor their breast health.
This manipulator device, based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, applies specific forces similar to those used by human examiners, but its sensor technology can detect deeper lumps.
The system is designed to provide accessible and safe electronic clinical breast exams (CBEs) with accurate results, the researchers said.
These examinations require precision, repeatability and accuracy. A range of existing automatic and semi-automatic devices have been proposed to aid in optimizing the task, especially in difficult-to-detect and hard-to-reach situations, like minimally invasive surgery.
The Bristol research team — a mix of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers — said ideas conflict over how useful CBEs are for health outcomes. They can be “very useful and low-risk” if performed well, lead author George Jenkinson said.
“There have been a few attempts in the past to use technology to improve the standard to which healthcare professionals can perform a CBE by having a robot or electronic device physically palpate breast tissue,” Jenkinson said. “But the last decade or so of technological advances in manipulation and sensor technology mean that we are now in a better position to do this. The first question that we want to answer as part of this is whether a specialized manipulator can be demonstrated to have the dexterity necessary to palpate a realistic breast size and shape.”
How the Bristol team developed its robotic system
The team created the manipulator using 3D printing and computerized numerical control techniques. They say they employed a combination of laboratory experiments and simulated experiments on a silicone breast and its digital twin. The simulations enabled the team to perform thousands of palpitations and test hypothetical scenarios. Experiments on the silicone breast demonstrated the accuracy of the simulations and enabled researchers to discover the forces needed for the system.
Jenkinson said the team hopes the research can contribute to and complement current techniques used to diagnose breast cancer. With the associated data, it may offer effectiveness in identifying large-scale trends. Those could help diagnose breast cancer early.
“One advantage that some doctors have mentioned anecdotally is that this could provide a low-risk way to objectively record health data,” he said. “This could be used, for example, to compare successive examinations more easily, or as part of the information packet sent to a specialist if a patient is referred for further examination.”
Researchers plan to combine CBE techniques with AI for their next step. They intend to fully equip the manipulator with sensors to determine the effectiveness of the whole system for identifying potential cancer risks.
Ultimately, they aim to detect lumps more accurately and deeper with the robot than is possible with only a human’s touch. More options include combining it with other existing techniques like ultrasound examination.
“So far we have laid all of the groundwork,” said Jenkinson. “We have shown that our robotic system has the dexterity necessary to carry out a clinical breast examination — we hope that in the future this could be a real help in diagnosing cancers early.”