New robotic tool at Scripps Encinitas expected to help with lung cancer diagnoses

Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas recently began using a robotic technology that can help diagnose lung cancer and other respiratory issues earlier, which could potentially save more lives.

Dr. Samir Makani

“It’s allowing us to access the lung in more challenging locations, deeper locations that we were unable to reach before,” said Samir Makani, the hospital’s director of interventional pulmonary medicine.

In the past, he said, a small spot on a patient’s lung might be “either too deep or too dangerous” to access for a diagnosis, forcing doctors to wait a few months or so for a biopsy.

“If it’s an early cancer, we’re delaying treatment and care, which impacts survival and all those things,” Makani said.

Early diagnosis of lung cancer is crucial because of the disparity in survival rates based on how early it’s recognized. According to the American Cancer Society, there is a 61% five-year survival rate for lung cancer patients when the cancer is still localized to the lungs, based on non small cell lung cancer cases from 2009-15 in the National Cancer Institute’s database. When the cancer spreads throughout the body before it’s caught, that rate drops to about 6%. Other factors, such as genes, age and overall health, play a role in each individual case.

The new robotic technology is a type of bronchoscopy, which involves a thin tube, known as a bronchoscope, being inserted through the patient’s mouth and into the airways of the lungs, according to Scripps. A traditional bronchoscopy has multiple uses, including detecting lung cancer.

A robotic bronchoscopy allows a doctor to use a “video game-style controller,” according to Scripps, to guide the scope through the patient’s airways and get to some of the hardest to reach areas of the lungs.

The robotic bronchoscopy is performed on patients under general anesthesia. Upon waking up, patients might have a little bit of a cough or throat irritation, Makani said.

Scott Eisman, physician chief operating executive at Scripps Encinitas, said in a statement that “conventional navigational bronchoscopy can help the doctor get to the general neighborhood of the nodule, but robotic bronchoscopy, in conjunction with intraoperative CT imaging, takes the doctor all the way to the nodule’s front doorstep with a higher degree of accuracy.”

“Having the confidence of knowing we are taking the sample from the precise spot we want is absolutely critical to our ability to give patients the answers they need,” he added.