No bigger than a grain of rice, the tiny navigational sensor at the end of a long hair-thin wire is a disease-seeking missile used to hunt down and eradicate tumors in the deepest reaches of the human lung.
How to access the remote branches of this organ, where tissue gives way to minute intertwined limbs, has been one of the most vexing issues for thoracic and pulmonary experts, explained Stephen Tahta, a cardiac and thoracic surgeon at Community Medical Center.
But now, because of this new-generation tissue sensor and sophisticated computer technology that creates a super-dimensional map of the lung, surgeons at Community can venture into a realm once considered impossible to navigate.
“We are bringing in technology that is groundbreaking for Missoula and doing diagnostic innovations for lung cancer and lung pathology that are very different than what we have offered,” said Dave Lechner, a family practice doctor and president of CMC’s physicians group.
“We are really excited about bringing this technology to Missoula and taking the treatment of pulmonary disease to a different level of quality and service delivery.”
Community Medical Center is launching the new year with its new diagnostic equipment and a goal to become Montana’s center of excellence for lung cancer care, Tahta said.
Combining his thoracic and cardiac skills with Eric Stern, the hospital’s newly hired pulmonologist, and with CMC’s oncology department will create a dynamic partnership that ultimately benefits patients with a full-service, multidisciplinary approach, Tahta said.
“The team we have put together is pretty exciting,” he said. “If we are going to move forward, we need to offer not just state-of-the-art diagnosis, but also state-of-the-art treatment.”
“That means purchasing new technology that allows us to do our work in way that is more accurate and less risky,” Tahta said.
While fiber optics have transformed surgeries and diagnostic practices for decades, advances in tiny sensors, surgical equipment and computer programming have launched a whole new approach to delivering medical treatment.
Computer technology paired with CAT scans of the lung allows Tahta and his team to create a multidimensional model of a patient’s bronchial tree.
What that really means is that, like a video game, Tahta can use a computer screen to confidently guide the sensor on a hair-thin wire through the tiniest branches of the lung to quickly reach trouble spots detected by the CAT scan and mapped in detail by the super-dimension software technology.
During the process, the sensor interacts directly with software to efficiently and accurately locate the desired area.
Once the sensor arrives at a suspicious site, miniscule biopsy forceps can be used to collect tissue samples from the area for further study – or markers can be placed to identify the diseased tissue in order to use pinpoint radiation treatment.
Before such technology was used, surgeons used needles to find hard-to-locate tumors by going through the chest wall.
Often, because of the lung’s intricate textures and layers, the process wasn’t an exact science, and could be risky for patients. In many cases, patients with lung disease were not candidates for that kind of treatment because their health was often too fragile, Tahta said.
“This new method allows for us to reach the tumor from the inside of the patient – going through the mouth – instead of outside through the chest wall, which comes with high risks,” he said. “This gives us an ability to provide minimally invasive treatment and surgery and to deliver better care to our lung cancer patients.”
For many reasons, the technology – and the new lung cancer treatment emphasis at CMC – is needed, Lechner said.
“Lung cancer is still the No. 1 leading cause of cancer death in the United States among men and women – and the numbers hold true for Montana,” he said. “If you think about the patients who are treated, generally they are an older patient with lung lesions. Most of these folks have underlying lung or cardiac diseases, and trying to find minimally invasive approaches and optimize treatment is huge.
“And keeping healthy tissue while targeting disease is a huge improvement.”
Reach reporter Betsy Cohen at 523-5253 or by email at bcohen