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Surgery professor harnesses space-age tech to detect cancer

Surgery professor harnesses space-age tech to detect cancer

Mehran Anvari has always been something of a pioneer.

He performed one of the world’s first remote-controlled robotic surgeries — he was in Hamilton; the patient was in North Bay.

Anvari, a professor of surgery, has also tested how remote surgery could be performed in space, working with NASA astronauts in a laboratory 19 metres underwater off the Florida Keys.

Now, Anvari is at the forefront of a project to develop robot-assisted biopsy and diagnostics for breast cancer, using technology first pioneered on the space shuttle’s Canadarm.

He is furthering his vision with Paul Chipperton, CEO and president of Insight Medbotics Inc. (IMI), through a $435,000 grant from the McMaster Seed Fund (MSF). They plan to market their product in the U.S.

“The care patients receive for breast cancer is still not ideal, and while MRI scans can provide highly detailed images, they may detect small lesions that may or may not be cancer and must be checked by radiologists in big-city hospitals,” says Anvari, who is the scientific director and CEO of the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation.

NASA recognized Anvari’s work in robotic medicine in 2015 for his work on the image-guided automated robot (IGAR) that detects cancerous lesions, in doing so bringing space technology back to Earth.

Women over 40 should at least have an annual mammogram, but these X-rays do not always detect cancerous lesions, Chipperton says. Mammograms are even less effective in women with “dense” breast tissue — more than 25 million women of breast-cancer screening age in the U.S. — as regular and cancerous tissue appears similar in these patients.

While MRI scans are recommended for such patients, a lack of trained radiologists in rural and remote communities forces many women who need MRIs to go without.

“Eventually we intend to build robots that can provide ‘one-stop shopping’ for diagnostics, biopsies and treatment for patients in remote areas, but we still need the regulatory approval,” Anvari says.

Once radiologists, oncologists and others in the breast cancer care community use such systems and provide feedback, the robotic technology can be more widely implemented, Chipperton says.

“Mehran believes there will be a trickle-down as the robotics technology is perfected, to deliver telemedicine in rural and remote Canadian communities,” Chipperton says.

“Our ultimate vision is a national health care system that is available from Toronto to Tuktoyaktuk, made possible by telemedicine and robotics.”

McMaster’s support is a key driver of IMI’s success, Chipperton says.

“The McMaster Seed Fund is absolutely vital for us in securing regulatory clearance, which is among the most challenging goals of any medical technology company, and the most valuable inflection point in any company’s life.”

IMI’s proposal was one of 18 submitted to the McMaster Seed Fund from a variety of disciplines within the faculties of engineering, science and health sciences, says Karen Mossman, McMaster vice-president of research.

“The McMaster Seed Fund was designed to foster our culture of commercialization and social innovation across the university in an effort to positively impact society and it is certainly living up to its mandate.”

The fund was established to enable startups at the university to complete value-add experiments or validate their market that will best position them for a series A investment.

IMI was recommended for funding based on the quality of the team and the technology.

The McMaster Industry Liaison Office manages the fund.

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