Low cost endoscope could transform developing world cancer diagnosis

A new type of endoscope that can be produced at a fraction of the cost of existing systems promises to revolutionise cancer screening in low income countries.

The device’s inventors estimate that it could be produced for just £40, a fraction of the cost of existing systems. Image: Leeds University

Developed by a Leeds University led consortium, the prototype device – which is designed to detect cancers within the upper part of the digestive tract, is claimed to represent a fundamental redesign of a technology that remained largely unchanged for the last 60-plus years.

Instead of a complex mechanical system of cables and cogs, the device – which consists of a hand-held control column and a section comprising a narrow silicone tube and camera housing – is pneumatically operated.

Whilst conventional endoscopes require cleaning between patients – a process which involves a dedicated sterilisation suite – the silicone tubing and camera housing of the new device are disposable, opening up potential applications of the technology in areas where healthcare facilities are more basic.

“By radically re-thinking the way the device works, is manufactured and operated we have come up with a solution that is a fraction of the cost of conventional endoscopes,” said Project leader Pietro Valdastri, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Leeds.  He said that whilst conventional endoscopes can cost around £80,000, the new device could be manufactured for around £40.

The system could improve cancer diagnosis in low income economies. Image: Leeds University

“Cancer of the stomach and oesophagus have the highest global mortality rates,” he added. “Screening programmes in many low-to-middle income countries are non-existent or ineffective because endoscope facilities are few-and-far between.

Valdastri – who hopes to see the device in use within four years – added that the technology could have a big impact in China where in 2015 more than one million people were diagnosed with gastric and oesophageal cancers. Screening programmes have been difficult to implement in rural China because of a shortage of doctors.

He said: “Screening is effective at picking up the early signs of these cancers and there is an urgent need to develop technology which opens up these crucial checks to poorer populations.”

Unlike more expensive endoscopes, the device cannot take biopsies. It is also smaller, reducing the need for patients to be sedated and because it is made of silicone, it is less likely to cause damage to the tissues in the upper digestive tract.

The project has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), UK aid money designed to use the best of British science to tackle big problems facing the world. Other collaborators in the project include academics at University College, London; Tianjin University, China; and Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, in the US.