Search & Rescue

New robotic technology allows pulmonologists to detect and treat lung cancer sooner

WRITTEN BY Lauren B. Johnson

Much like a dense forest, the branches of the bronchial tree are well suited to hiding intruders. And the job of uncovering danger lurking in people’s lungs falls to critical care pulmonologists like Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated Dr. Atif Rashad. These scouts often look out for lung cancer using low-dose CT scans, which can pinpoint nodules as small as a grain of rice. However, navigating labyrinthine airways to conduct any necessary biopsies is significantly invasive, so the standard of care for detecting lung cancer has been to simply watch and wait—until now. With the introduction of the Ion Endoluminal System, doctors can perform minimally invasive biopsies on every section of the lungs. This robotic-assisted tool allows for more timely identification of cancerous growths. And quicker detection leads to early intervention, when tumors are most treatable. We sat down with Dr. Rashad to learn more about this impressive new technology that’s helping guide lung cancer patients out of the woods.

Dr. Atif Rashad

HOUSE CALLS (HC): When did Roper St. Francis Healthcare roll out this new system?
Dr. Atif Rashad (AR):
We started using the Ion Endoluminal Robotic Bronchoscopy in July 2022, after extensive research comparing multiple available technologies. We’re the first healthcare system in Charleston and one of just three in South Carolina to use this technology.

HC: Can you describe exactly how a robotic-assisted bronchoscopy works?
First, we create a three-dimensional road map of the patient’s lungs. Then, using a shape-sensing vision catheter that gives us access to all 18 segments of the lungs in a precise and minimally invasive way, we can biopsy target lesions.

HC: How does this technology benefit patients?
As we are aware, for every centimeter of tumor growth, a patient’s five-year survival rate drops by 10 percent. Ion provides us with a minimally invasive option for early diagnosis of small lung cancer nodules. Doctors can actually diagnose and assist in cancer staging within the same procedure. And we’re seeing up to a 90 percent diagnostic accuracy with this technology. This leads to more treatment options with improved survival rates.

HC: In what ways does this improve upon previous methods for monitoring nodules?
In the past, depending on the size and location of the nodules, we either monitored them with what we called “watchful waiting,” meaning we closely watched but didn’t treat unless symptoms appeared, or used a CT-guided lung biopsy, which has its own limitations. The Ion Endoluminal System allows us to reach small nodules in difficult-to-access regions of the lungs without significant risk of complications.

HC: What risks are involved with this procedure?
Like any other bronchoscopy, robotic bronch can also be associated with bleeding or collapse of the lung. However, these complications are very infrequent, and the benefits far outweigh the risks.

HC: Who’s a candidate?
Any patient who is diagnosed with a lung nodule can be assessed by our team of expert physicians if they will benefit from this procedure.