Canadarm robotic technology has been adapted to perform breast cancer biopsies inside an MRI scanner, the Canadian Space Agency says.

The iconic Canadarm technology graces the International Space Station and flew on NASA’s shuttles to help position astronauts and satellites. Now researchers are using image-guided robotics to perform biopsies with greater accuracy than most humans can achieve.

"The capability of this system to get the tip of the needle to within a fraction of a millimetre close to the targeted lesion is where this used the Canadarm technology," said Dr. Mehran Anvari, chief executive officer and scientific director at the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation in Hamilton.

'It may reduce burden on the health-care system, but it also shows that this technology is not unique to space​.' — Pierre Jean, Canadian Space Agency

Anvari also works at St. Joseph Healthcare in Hamilton, where researchers are testing the image-guided robotic technology in a clinical trial. The trial also includes participants and researchers in Laval, Que.

So far, most patients approached to participate in the research are in favour of it, because they believe they’ll experience less pain and bruising during the more accurate procedure, Anvari said.

The design behind the technology comes from MDA's Canadarm, including the arm and motor designs and software. The robot itself includes four rotating arms hidden inside a box.

The robotic approach inside the MRI is able to perform real-time imaging for radiologists. It also freezes the path taken during the biopsy and reduces trauma for the patient, Anvari said.

Dr. Mehran Anvari

Dr. Mehran Anvari says the robotic technology can get within a fraction of a millimetre to the targeted lesion in breasts. (CBC)

When Canadarm was conceived, both precision and safety were high priorities in the design, said Pierre Jean, director of space exploration operations and infrastructure with the Canadian Space Agency.

"It's everything we would want it to be, because first of all it may reduce burden on the health-care system, but it also shows that this technology is not unique to space," said Jean. "This technology has applications on Earth."

The early-stage Phase 1 clinical data will be submitted to Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The goal is to manufacture the technology to sell to hospitals for under $500,000, which Anvari said is the range of devices purchased by most cancer centres.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy and Melanie Glanz