Women's Health

Can a 3D Printed Robot Diagnose Breast Cancer?

Can a 3D Printed Robot Diagnose Breast Cancer?

After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the United States. Breast cancer can occur in both women and men but is 100 times more likely to occur in women than it is in men.

Screening is often done to look for cancer in people who are at risk of developing cancer, even before any symptoms are present. The goal of screening is to detect cancer when it is at an early stage, when the cancer or abnormal tissue is the easiest to treat. If cancer is not found until symptoms have begun to present themselves, the cancer has usually already begun to spread to other parts of the body (or metastasize).

With no known cure for breast cancer, medical and research communities have turned their focus towards three primary areas of research: 1) understanding how and why breast cancer develops; 2) devising new and improved methods for detecting and evaluating breast cancer; and 3) continuing to try to find new ways to fight cancer or remove abnormal tissue.

Current methods for detecting breast cancer are timely, expensive, labor intensive, and only fairly accurate at best. Researchers hope to come up with new devices and more modern methods for detecting breast cancer in methods that are more accurate than is currently available.

3D Biopsy Robot

A team of researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands have developed a tiny 3D printed robot that could become an extraordinary new tool in the diagnosis of breast cancer, as well as a huge help in breast cancer biopsies. The 3D printed robotic biopsy tool is said to be the smallest biopsy robot in the world and is being called the Stormram 4.

A cancer biopsy requires the tissue from the breast to be surgically removed and analyzed to look for the presence of a disease or how far along a disease has progressed. When a woman undergoes a breast cancer biopsy, a biopsy needle is inserted into the breast tissue and a sample of the breast tissue is removed and analyzed. This is referred to as a needle aspiration biopsy.

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

Groenhuis, along with two other members of the Robotics and Mechatronics (RAM) lab, Francoise Siepel and Stefano Stramigioli, wanted to devise a new method for overcoming the problem of the invasively sized needle and inaccurate results be developing a new robotic biopsy program and system.

However, the team was met with one major problem:

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

Groenhuis, Siepel, and Stramigioli found their solution when they started looking at the plastic filament that is used in 3D printed technologies. The plastic used in 3D printers does not seem to affect the magnetic field of the MRI scanner, whatsoever. The team of researchers tried out four separate versions of their device before they finally created the Stormram 4.

The research team had to go through four different versions of the device because of the many challenges that they were presented when combining a biopsy tool with an MRI scanner. The first three versions of the Stormrom brought several different challenges to the team. One of the primary challenges that the researchers had to overcome was determining how to power the device in a manner in which would not interfere with the MRI scanners. Electric motors could not be used because of this magnetic interference.

The first two Stormram versions both used linear stepper motors, while rotational stepper motors were used in the third one. The Ziekenhuis Groep Twente worked with the University of Twente group to create the finalized Stormram 4 biopsy robot, which was made entirely from plastic parts that did not interfere with the MRI scanners.

The importance of conducting a breast cancer biopsy at the same time as an MRI scanner lies in the accuracy of the method and the reliability of the results. If a robotic biopsy needles can also be used in place of using hands to direct a needle, the accuracy and reliability go up even further. The new biopsy robot is the smallest that has ever been developed and is so small, in fact, that it can fit inside the tunnel of an MRI scanner and is guided by air pipes from outside of the scanner that are about 16 feet (5 meters) long.

“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.”

Other 3D Cancer Treatment Tools

The Stormram 4 is definitely a breakthrough in breast cancer detection and surveillance, but is certainly not the first 3D printed cancer detection tool. Another 3D printed device called the SLIDEMAP combines 3D printing with computer programming to provide researchers with an automated cancer detection result. Devin Willis, a 14-year-old student from Boca Raton, FL invented the device that landed him as a finalist in the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge.

Devin understood how difficult it was for Histopathologists (those who study and diagnose cancer by researching a patient's tissue and cell samples) to detect cancer. The procedures were both time and labor intensive. With cancer being one of the largest causes of deaths in the United States, Devin wanted to combine computer programming with 3D printing to devise a diagnostic machine that would help Histopathologists used an automated system to detect cancer in a patient while it is still in its earliest, and easiest-to-fight, stages.

With the SLIDEMAP device, Devin believes that he can increase the speed at which millions of cells are analyzed and improve the accuracy of diagnosis. According to Devin, doctors only currently agree with the results compiled by histopathologic images about 75 percent of the time. Devin intends for SLIDEMAP to help dramatically improve the agreement between all members of a patient's medical team, including the doctors and the histopathologists. Devin also expects that his device can work more effectively with computer automation and using machine learning algorithms in order to scan, interpret, and detect the distinguishing features of a tumor.

This new device, SLIDEMAP, could both be used as validation improvement for a doctor trying to make an accurate diagnosis and to bring factors that may need extra attention into focus for the members of a patient's medical team.


Clarke, C. (2017). Teenage student uses 3D printing to create SLIDEMAP cancer detection machine. [Web]. In 3D Printing Industry. Retrieved on 07/14/17 from: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/teenage-student-uses-3d-printing-create-slidemap-cancer-detection-machine-117431/

Furness, D. (2017). 3D-printed robot aims to improve breast cancer diagnosis. Retrieved from: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/3d-printed-robot-aims-improve-172955306.html

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