Breakthrough in cancer surgery, thanks to crab meal

EndoMaster co-founder Professor Louis Phee (pictured) developed the system with Professor Lawrence Ho. PHOTO: ENDOMASTER

Over a feast of chilli crabs, two researchers in Singapore came up with a device that could offer stomach, colon and esophageal cancer patients a safe, minimally invasive method of surgery.

The duo's brainchild in 2004 is expected to hit the market in 2018, after successful clinical trials in Hong Kong and India.

Called Master (Master And Slave Transluminal Endoscopic Robot), the crab claw-inspired device can be used for operations like removing tumours from gastrointestinal cancer patients without the need for open or even keyhole surgery.

It was developed by Professor Louis Phee, chair of the school of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Nanyang Technological University, and Professor Lawrence Ho of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

Robotic arm used in the flexible endoscope system. PHOTO: ENDOMASTER

To take it from prototype to commercial use, the team got funding of $500,000 from the Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme of Spring Singapore.

The two men co-founded a company called Endomaster in 2011 to commercialise the device.

In 2012 they got the President's Technology Award for their groundbreaking device, said to be the first such in the world. The following year, the company got $4 million from Hoya Group, a leading manufacturer of optical components, to co-develop a production system.

The researchers said it was while savouring their chilli crabs that they reflected on the fact that a conventional endoscope could do little beyond looking inside the stomach. Master is one of a range of breakthroughs in gastric cancer research that is aiding the treatment of the deadly disease that kills around 300 people in Singapore each year.

They include a system that can identify cancer cells in real time without the need for a biopsy and a test that can detect the cancer even before symptoms surface by measuring tiny changes in the levels of micro-RNA - chemicals that help regulate genes - in blood.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline Breakthrough in cancer surgery, thanks to crab meal. Subscribe