Robotic biopsy technology saves hundreds of lives at McLaren Port Huron

Cancer is never a word you want to hear, but if you are going to hear it, sooner is better than later.

For some McLaren Port Huron patients, hearing it helped save their lives. When it comes to lung cancer, McLaren Port Huron is one of a few hospitals in the state to have an innovative tool at its disposal for early diagnosis. The Ion platform is a minimally invasive, robotic-assisted bronchoscopy, making all the difference in hundreds of people’s lives.

Dr. Vasken Artinian, MD, specializes in critical care, pulmonology, and sleep disorders at McLaren Port Huron. He’s also the physician championing the ion robot technology at the hospital. He says the innovative technology can help doctors diagnose and treat lung cancer cases quicker. 

“In this area, there’s a large number of lung cancers for whatever reason — whether it’s smoking, pollution, air quality, etc.,” Artinian says. “McLaren Port Huron has been screening eligible patients aggressively, and once they find any abnormal lesions or spots on their CAT scans, we have the technology to biopsy the smaller lesions and establish an earlier diagnosis.”

Artinian emphasizes how an early diagnosis can drastically change the patient’s life. 

“The importance of this technology is that once those lesions or abnormal findings are picked up on the CT scan, the Ion robot technology will help us diagnose those nodules and make a diagnosis of cancer — which hopefully is early and we can lead into treatment and cure,” Artinian says. 
Pulmonologist at controller using the Ion software.
Typically lung cancer screenings are done through a low-dose radiation CT scan of the chest, but the Ion robot technology uses even less radiation exposure than its usual counterparts. The one-hour procedure is done under anesthesia. The robot guides a scope through the patient’s airways and can look at the peripheral tissue to detect benign or cancerous nodules. A 3D model of the patient’s lung anatomy is created with advanced imaging capabilities. 

“The robot helps us navigate better within the airway of the patient, and get to locations we could not get in the past,” Artinian says. “Some of the nodules are small and tiny in various locations of the lungs, but the robot helps us navigate through the patient’s airways to get to those tough locations, and get a biopsy.”

The technology allows doctors to take a much more proactive approach to one of the most common forms of cancer across the globe. According to McLaren Port Huron, more than 90% of lung cancer patients do not survive the disease, in part because cases are diagnosed in an advanced stage. More than 70% of lung cancer cases originate in the peripheral tissue.

Artinian says the screening procedure is a low risk of major complications, and patients can go home the same day without restrictions. 

“It’s a relatively non-invasive way of doing a biopsy and leading to a diagnosis,” he says. 

The test is recommended for anyone between the ages of 50-80 current or former smokers with a 20-pack-per-year history, or who have quit within the past 15 years. 

“Studies have shown that we can improve the survival of the patients by about 20-25% just by screening,” Artinian says. 

Intuitive Ion staff using the Ion Robotic Bronchoscopy technology to check a patient.

In the past five years, McLaren Port Huron has seen a 250% increase in screenings and a 60% increase in lung cancer diagnoses. From fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2023, lung cancer screenings have nearly doubled. McLaren Port Huron was the first McLaren hospital to go live with this technology on April 20, 2023. 

“The technology is a unique technology, only a few centers have this in the state of Michigan. We’re privileged to have something like this in our community,” Artinian says. 

As of May 2024, they’ve given biopsies to 107 cases and saved lives. The staff is grateful for the innovation that has led to saving lives, and the support from leadership including CEO Eric Cecava, for allowing the lung cancer program to grow and flourish.

The Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Port Huron is part of the Karmanos Cancer Network — the region’s leading provider of cancer care. The network helps to provide patients with advanced diagnostic, treatment, surgeries, and clinical trials in the fight against cancer. 

For more information on Ion robotic technology, contact Aimee Bowles, operations manager at McLaren Port Huron. She coordinates all biopsy cases and can be reached at 810-488-8713. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing resident, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at