Hamilton seeks to become centre of excellence for medical robotics

flybittencobwebAI and Robotics

Nov 2, 2013 (3 years and 9 months ago)


n an ambitious plan to develop a
world-class surgical robot, Hamil-
ton, Ont. innovators have teamed
up with the company known for
out-of-this-world brilliance in
space robotics.
If the plan succeeds – and the risks are
as great as the rewards – the next-
generation robots would be sold to
clinics and hospitals in Canada and
around the globe. They would be
mobile, lightweight, and have real-
time imaging – possibly at the mole-
cular level. One version might even
be used in ambulances or on the bat-
tlefield or in space.
The project involves doctors, bio-
engineers, and scientists in Hamil-
ton as well as at MDA Corp., the
industry leader behind the telescop-
ing Canadarm robotic grappling
arm, its Maple Leaf logo large at 325
kilometres above the earth.
“Canada is at the leading edge in
space robotics with Canadarm,” says
Dr. Mehran Anvari, an expert in
robotic surgery and current presi-
dent of the international Minimally
Invasive Robotic Association. “We’re
now trying to translate that edge into
the medical field,” says the surgeon at
St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton,
who has relied on U.S-made robots
in the past.
The team at McMaster University
and MDA (MacDonald, Dettwiler
and Associates) is chasing a handsome
global market, estimated by some to hit
more than US$10 billion by 2014. But it is
also a busy marketplace, with many com-
petitors and long timelines to move con-
cept to commercialization.
Affordability is also a vital concern for
cash-strapped hospitals. Entry-level
robotic systems begin at about
US$600,000. But some platforms, such as
the da Vinci system by Intuitive Surgical,
sell for well over $1 million.
It’s still early days for the $30 million
Hamilton project, half of its funding
coming from the federal government’s
Centres of Excellence program. But Dr.
Anvari and colleagues, such as former
astronaut Dr. David Williams (twice in
Hamilton seeks to become centre
of excellence for medical robotics
Reprinted from Canadian Healthcare Technology, March 2010 issue
Dr. Mehran Anvari (centre), director of the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation at McMaster University,
shows Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear (left) a surgical robot designed by MDA engineer Benny
Yeung. Dr. Anvari hopes to transform Hamilton into a global powerhouse in medical robotics. Several other groups
in Canada are also working in this fast-growing area.
space), believe the team can design and
build programmable systems. Ideally,
they would incorporate high-resolution,
real-time imaging guidance, such as
magnetic resonance (MRI) or computed
tomography (CT).
Doctors would operate in “augmented
reality”, seeing “around the corner”, says
Dr. Anvari, scientific director for McMas-
ter’s new Centre for Surgical Invention and
Innovation. They would use computer-
aided haptic sensing, with pressure-touch
capability finer than that of a human hand.
Surgeons would get the benefits of
motion-scaling down to the micron level –
one-millionth of a metre or so.
The robotic systems might take on
other roles. For example, they might assist
in tough procedures, such as pedicle
screw drilling (in spinal fusions) or biop-
sies. They might also fit in well with
another leading-edge Hamilton facility,
the Centre for Probe Development and
This centre will develop nuclear medi-
cine imaging probes that ‘see’ early disease
at the molecular level in the body. Here,
robots might use image guidance to zero
in on diagnoses and treatment of breast
cancer, for example.
Robotic systems have played a key role
in what is known as minimally invasive
surgery for more than a decade. Minimal
tissue trauma, using minute incision
points or even natural orifices, such as the
mouth or rectum, results in less post-
operative pain and infection complica-
tions, faster recovery-times, and shorter
hospital stays. That’s important in a coun-
try in which each patient-stay costs, on
average, about $7,000, according to a 2008
Canadian Institute for Health Informa-
tion study.
A skilled doctor can do minimally inva-
sive surgery. But a tremor-free robotic sys-
tem, operating in a master-slave situation,
can make that surgeon’s gifted hands truly
masterful. And robotic arms can function
in tiny spaces and for hours without relief.
Dr. Anvari sees a large role for robotic
systems in a country as huge as Canada.
Patients generally recover faster in their
home hospitals and towns. So, telerobotic
systems that can make hospital calls hun-
dreds of kilometres away would be a
major advantage. Using dedicated com-
munication links, experts at control con-
soles in one hospital can work with a
robot and other doctors in a smaller
hometown hospital. Dr. Anvari has done
dozens of these distant interventions.
The Hamilton program is also looking
at portable systems that would stabilize
trauma patients before they reach hospi-
tal. Drs. Anvari and Williams have
designs on a remotely operated trans-
portable suite. That platform might per-
form telesurgical cranial decompression
on someone with a head injury. Or on a
battlefield, it might stabilize a
wounded soldier prior to flying
the soldier to a military hospi-
tal. In space, it could include
robotic interventions on a sick
These are all grand visions. But it
takes huge chunks of capital,
approvals by health regulators,
and lots of time to transfer acad-
emic and industry technologies
to a commercially ready product.
In Canada, the lead university-
industry robotic team pairs the
University of Calgary with MD
Robotics, part of the same MDA
Corporation now partnering
with McMaster. Calgary’s robot,
called neuroArm, scored interna-
tional headlines in 2008 when it
operated on a 21-year-old moth-
er’s brain tumour.
The MRI-compatible neuroArm is
capable both of microsurgery and image-
guided biopsy work. Its designers are now
looking at integrating laser technology
into their platform.
But neuroArm, while close to commer-
cialization, was not yet at market (at time
of publication) despite eight years or so in
development. The company recently
announced that it will be acquired by
Dr. Mehran Anvari heads the Centre for Surgical Invention.