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Advanced technology enables earlier lung cancer diagnosis

Monday, November 27, 2023 11:18 AM

By Susan J. White 

Game-changing new technology is transforming physicians’ ability to perform lung biopsies, in even the smallest and hardest to reach airways. The Ion robotic-assisted bronchoscopy enables precise, minimally-invasive navigation and efficient biopsies of nodules or concerning lung tissue.

The new technology represents a major advance in pulmonary diagnostics, according to Wajahat Hussain, DO, pulmonary disease specialist at Edward-Elmhurst Health, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health, who has been working with the Ion platform since summer 2023.

“Having this additional tool and superior technology is the biggest breakthrough in years from a pulmonary prospective,” said Dr. Hussain, who hopes to be able to diagnose more lung cancers before they have spread.

Ion robotic assisted bronchoscopy system

Using information from a computed tomography (CT) scan prior to the procedure, physicians generate a roadmap through the lungs to the area for the biopsy. An ultra-thin catheter is inserted into the lungs and physicians use a controller to help guide it through often difficult to reach areas. The catheter moves in 180 degrees at all angles, offering far superior navigation than traditional bronchoscopy, explained Dr. Hussain. It is then “parked” at the nodule or tissue in question to safely and efficiently secure the biopsy.

Photo taken from the Intuitive website.

The revolutionary technology can play a key role in diagnosing lung cancers, and Dr. Hussain is hopeful that more people at risk of developing lung cancer will undergo essential screening.

Current and former smokers between the ages of 50 and 80 are encouraged to undergo an annual low dose CT scan, which has been shown to save lives. Current guidelines suggest annual screening for people with a 20 pack-year history of smoking — a pack year equals smoking 1 pack per day for a year, smoking two packs a day counts as two pack years and so on.

“Our goal is to screen as many people as we can,” said Dr. Hussain. According to the American Lung Association, more than 14 million Americans are eligible for the screening, yet less than 6% of those individuals have actually had the potentially lifesaving scan.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Lung cancer survival rates in the U.S. are significantly less than those of breast, prostate and other cancers, as most lung cancers have already spread by the time they are diagnosed.

“We do not commonly diagnose early stage I lung cancer as much as we would hope to.” said Dr. Hussain. “As a system, we need to do our best to further increase awareness for lung screening eligibility.”

Patients who are smoking, or who have smoked in the last 15 years are encouraged to contact their primary care physicians and consider lung cancer screening. If a biopsy is needed, the Ion bronchoscopy is performed as an outpatient procedure that generally takes less than 90 minutes. Side effects are generally very minimal, and patients can return to normal activity the next day.

Dr. Hussain has also used the Ion bronchoscopy to diagnose other pulmonary conditions including signs of a fungal infection.

Learn more about comprehensive lung cancer care at NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center.