Mechanical breakthrough to fight cancer

Mechanical breakthrough to fight cancer

THE iSR’obot Mona Lisa bears little resemblance to the masterpiece she is named after.

Painted surgical white instead of tonal colours, she lacks her namesake’s beguiling smile. In place of the famous lady’s sinuous curves, she has a robotic arm, an adjustable joint and a jabbing needle. Her face is a cold, touchscreen monitor cut from medical-grade glass.

Still, she makes men sit up and take notice in more ways than one.

Her developers at BioBot Surgical, a local medical technology (medtech) start-up, call her the “Mona Lisa” of prostate biopsy machines.

The surgical robot is referred to as one of the success stories in Singapore’s nascent medtech scene, and shows great promise in the fight against prostate cancer — the third most common cancer in Singaporean men.

High-tech manoeuvres
The iSR’obot Mona Lisa shuns the usual method of conducting prostate cancer biopsies through the rectum, which can cause pain and infections.

Instead, its robotic arm enables a needle to be inserted through the perineum to extract tissue from the prostate.

Once tissue samples have been collected, usually via two puncture entry points, the needle is retracted, and the punctures are covered to stop any bleeding.

According to BioBot Surgical, the process is “cleaner” and greatly reduces the infection risk, which can be as high as 5 per cent with the trans-rectal method.

The robot also leaves little room for doubt when it comes to cancer detection. It is able to pinpoint prostate tumours with more accuracy than traditional methods, allowing urologists to make diagnoses earlier.

Journey of innovation
BioBot Surgical’s iSR’obot Mona Lisa, 14 years in the making, is getting better with age.

The late Professor Ng Wan Sing of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Professor Christopher Cheng of Singapore General Hospital (SGH) spearheaded its development in 2001.

Prof Cheng, along with two senior consultants from SGH’s urology department, Dr John Yuen and Dr Henry Ho, provided the medical breakthrough.

Prof Ng and his engineering team at NTU designed and refined the concept to build a functioning device.

After which, he started Biobot Surgical to enable the first-generation surgical robot to be further developed in 2007.

The new start-up received seed funding two years later, in the form of Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme (TECS) proof-of-concept and proof-of-value grants from Spring Singapore.

It was in 2009 when BioBot Surgical pitched the idea for Zicom Med-Tacc to invest in the iSR’obot Mona Lisa project.

The company, which is part of Australia-listed precision engineering and manufacturing company Zicom Group, made an investment of close to $5 million in 2010.

Two years into their collaboration, BioBot and Zicom also tapped on Spring’s capability development grant — targeted at companies with more sophisticated operations looking to embark on more complex projects — to improve the surgical robot.

In addition, Zicom leveraged its in-house intellectual property (IP) translation services and manufacturing infrastructure from iPtec to support the project, says its chief executive Mr Sim Kok Hwee.

Mr Sim also serves as BioBot Surgical’s chief executive officer.

As a private sector translator (PST) appointed by Spring in 2013, iPtec identifies, develops and commercialises IP for the Medtech industry.

With 20 engineers in fields as varied as mechatronics and biomed, the team quickly got down to “understanding the way iSR’obot Mona Lisa functions and its intended use”, says Mr Gary Lee, iPtec’s chief executive officer.

They also helped BioBot figure out how to make enough of the iSR’obot Mona Lisa — and how to make it at a price that doctors and hospitals will pay.

First up was making the robot “manufacturable”.

Mr Lee and his team adapted the designs, currently optimised for one-off production, for manufacturability at volume.

During the small batch production process, iPtec put in place a manufacturing solution for consistent quality and reliability. Materials that met stringent medical requirements were selected.

The iSR’obot Mona Lisa, now in its third iteration, was also built and tested.

The latest version features a sleeker chassis and features that made it easier for healthcare professionals to operate.

The 4.5kg device comes mounted on a four-wheeled cart, which doubles up as a storage area for the robot’s

Ambitious plans
Zicom has partnered academic hospitals in Germany, Australia and the United States, where iSR’obot Mona Lisa units are now being used commercially.

It plans to add at least five new centres of excellence in these countries as well as in England by the year’s end, says Mr Sim.

SGH remains a key partner and the iSR’obot Mona Lisa has been used on 600 patients at the hospital.

“If we want to expand in those territories, the doctors there have someone they can talk to, apart from our main centre of excellence at SGH in Singapore,” says Mr Sim.

More will be appointed over the next 12 to 18 months to allow the iSR’obot Mona Lisa to gain “a critical mass of users”.

Zicom aims to have 20 to 30 robots in use at these partner hospitals before distributorship schemes are explored.

“But we’ve got to remember that in terms of commercialisation, we’re still in an early phase,” he adds.

Despite having already spent five years on the iSR’obot Mona Lisa, Mr Sim is in no hurry to rush the project through or cash out on the investment.

“The journey here is long-drawn and arduous. There will be a lot of challenges. You need to be disruptive and innovative in a regulated environment,” he says.

About Private Sector Translators
Private Sector Translators (PSTs) supplement the efforts of Centres of Innovation in helping SMEs to source for and develop commercially viable technologies, to bring technology more downstream for enterprise adoption.

There are three PSTs appointed by Spring Singapore to support companies in the Medtech sector such as iPtec ( and AITbiotech (, and the Cleantech sector such as TechBridge Ventures (

By Leonard Lai

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction