Diagnosing and treating lung cancer—the number one cancer killer in the U.S.—at the earliest stage improves five-year survival rates dramatically. But the smaller the tumor, the harder it is to biopsy or find during surgery, says Brian Mitzman, a lung cancer surgeon at the U’s Huntsman Cancer Institute. Now, a new tool at the cancer center is making it a lot easier.
The Ion system uses a robotic arm to maneuver an ultrathin, ultra-flexible catheter through the lung’s airways to locate nodules and remove cells for biopsy. The Ion can reach more areas of the lung than any other biopsy tool, and it’s better able to remove an adequate sample, or yield, from tiny nodules. “Our yield results are much higher with the Ion,” says Mitzman. “So we’re diagnosing more lung cancers at an earlier stage now.”
Huntsman Cancer Institute is one of the few cancer centers in the country also using the tool not just for biopsies, but for tumor marking—a way to make the cancer easily visible during surgery. That’s crucial for tumors too small to see or feel, adds Mitzman. “In some situations [without the Ion], we have to look at the CT scan and say okay, the tumor is in the top right corner of the lung. We’re going to take that entire corner out and hope it’s right in the center there.”
Using the Ion, surgeons can inject tumors with fluorescent dye prior to surgery. “Then when I go inside the patient’s chest, the tumor lights up,” he explains. “We know exactly what to remove. We can take a much smaller piece of the lung and preserve as much healthy tissue as possible.”
Patients who are older or have pulmonary conditions can only tolerate so much loss of lung function, Mitzman says, so the Ion can mean the difference between being able to remove the cancer and not. “It really is making a big clinical impact on our patients.”
Watch a lung tumor light up during surgery in the video below.