'Magnetic Tentacle Robot' Could Slink Around Inside Patients' Lungs

This isn't an episode of Black Mirror -- it's a potential medical advancement.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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This image shows a life-size model of a bronchial tree with the flexible magnetic tentacle robot for size. 

University of Leeds

"Magnetic tentacle robot" might sound like the description of a villain in a dystopian movie, but the new soft and flexible device with a sci-fi-sounding name could represent a better way to collect lung tissue samples and deliver cancer treatments.

Human lungs are a maze and bronchial tubes can be a tight squeeze. Navigating through them for medical procedures is a delicate and challenging activity. A team led by researchers at the University of Leeds created a proof-of-concept robot that can navigate some of the smallest bronchial tubes.

The current standard for exploring bronchial tubes is a bronchoscope, which is limited in which areas it can reach. The tentacle-like device under development is controlled by magnets on robotic arms set up outside of the patient. It's more maneuverable than a bronchoscope and uses an autonomous system to guide it, essentially working with a custom map of the patient's lungs to get where it needs to go.

"A magnetic tentacle robot or catheter that measures 2 millimeters and whose shape can be magnetically controlled to conform to the bronchial tree anatomy can reach most areas of the lung, and would be an important clinical tool in the investigation and treatment of possible lung cancer and other lung diseases," Pietro Valdastri, of the university's Science and Technologies Of Robotics in Medicine Lab, said in a statement. Valdastri supervised the research, which was published in the journal Soft Robotics on Monday.

The team put the magnetic tentacle robot through tests using a 3D replica of a bronchial tree. The next step would be to try the device in the lungs of a cadaver before trying it on living patients. The university said it could take several years before the technology is available in a hospital setting. Perhaps it will have earned a less intimidating name by then.