3D-printed robot designed to take biopsies in an MRI scanner

A small, 3D-printed robot developed by researchers at the University of Twente may become a revolutionary new tool in breast cancer diagnoses and biopsies. They’re calling it the Stormram 4 and, although it looks intimidating, it could help save lives.

“The manual MRI-guided breast biopsy procedure is time-consuming and ineffective,” Vincent Groenhuis, one of the researchers who developed the device, told Digital Trends. “It uses a thick needle, extracting large tissue samples, often in multiple attempts, to extract a representative biopsy sample.”

To overcome these problems and get more precise biopsies, Groenhuis, Françoise Siepel, and Stefano Stramigioli from the Robotics and Mechatronics (RAM) lab decided to develop a robotic system. But there was a big problem.

“Current robotic systems cannot be used inside the MRI due to the high magnetic field,” he said, “and therefore we initiated the development of an MRI-compatible robotic system for breast biopsy.”

They found a solution in 3D-printed plastic, which doesn’t affect the MRI scanner’s magnetic field, and went through four iterations of the device before finalizing the current one.

The team faced a series of challenges during the development of the first three Stormrams, not least of which was figuring out how to power the thing, since electric motors also interfere with MRI scanners. In its current form the Stormram 3D-printed robot is driven by air pressure and controlled by an operator outside of the scanner.

The Stromram 4 has a number of advantages to conventional techniques, according to the researchers, beginning with its sub-millimeter precision, which would be impossible for human hands.

“The robotic system can manipulate the needle more precisely toward target coordinates of the lesion inside the body, on the first attempt,” Groenhuis said. “This will improve the accuracy of the biopsy procedure compared to the current manual practice. Secondly, the needle insertion can be performed inside the MRI scanner itself, so that the needle can be followed under nearly real-time imaging guidance. The required time to perform the biopsy is also shorter, allowing more effective use of the MRI scanner facilities.”

Groenhuis and his team said the device is in its final stages of design but it will still need a few years of development and trials to receive regulatory approval.