CHAPEL HILL — Imagine a high-tech robot that can be used to help detect lung cancer before it’s too late.

It might sound like a scene from a sci-fi film. But thanks to the work of UNC Chapel Hill professor Ron Alterovitz and his cross-disciplinary team of researchers, it could soon be a reality.

With the support from the National Institute of Health, he and his group are developing a new medical robot that can enable “earlier, less invasive, and more accurate” diagnosis of lung cancer.

Professor Ron Alterovitz. Source: UNC Chapel Hill

“The new robot has the potential to automatically curve around vasculature and other sensitive anatomical structures in the body, thereby reducing negative side effects, while safely and accurately reaching difficult-to-access nodules throughout the lung for biopsy and treatment,” UNC said in a statement.

The team includes researchers at UNC Computer Science, the UNC School of Medicine and Vanderbilt University.

Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, accounting for 2.1 million new cases and 1.8 million deaths last year.

In the US, the American Cancer Society estimates:

  • About 228,150 new cases of lung cancer (116,440 in men and 111,710 in women) in 2019
  • About 142,670 deaths from lung cancer (76,650 in men and 66,020 in women) in 2019

The work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Alterovitz recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to outstanding scientists and engineers.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinates the PECASE with over a dozen departments and agencies. Only around 100 recipients are named per year.