UCT researchers develop smaller, cheaper wireless endoscope to improve health equity

26 March 2021 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Robert Cutts, Wikimedia. Read time 6 min.
Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Soweto
Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Soweto

Using open-source technology and off-the-shelf components, researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have developed a low-cost wireless endoscope camera that could help bring minimal access surgery to resource-constrained environments.

Weighing in at a mere 184 grams and costing only USD230, the device prototype is much more mobile and affordable than its heavyweight wired counterparts that carry production price tags of as much as USD28 000.

Battery-operated and comprising a 3.7-millimetre (mm) tube camera and LED illumination, the camera is capable of delivering high-definition (1280 × 720 pixels) video at 30 frames per second. This is transmitted wirelessly in near real-time via USB 2.0 interface with a Raspberry Pi Zero W miniature single-board computer module. The system is powered by a 1200mAh lithium polymer battery that lasts for over two hours.

Collaboration

It comes as the result of a collaboration between Professor John Lazarus, Head of Urology at UCT and Mkhokheli Ncube, who completed his MSc in biomedical engineering and currently works as a mechanical designer at Philips in the Netherlands.

 

“Our collaboration has led to a wireless scope which is markedly lighter and avoids the need for cables.”

As a urological surgeon, Lazarus brings a wealth of clinical knowledge to the project, while Ncube offers invaluable experience in the development of biomedical devices. His MSc research focused on flexible ureteropyeloscopes, after which he joined UCT spin-out company, Straight Access Technologies to assist in cardiovascular catheter development.

Additionally, Ncube’s desire to see people from resource-constrained settings gain access to better healthcare – surgery in particular – has become the altruistic north star guiding the development of the new low-cost wireless endoscope camera.

“As urological surgeons, we are always involved with scopes, more so lately with the advancement of minimal access surgery for kidney stones and cancers,” says Lazarus. “Currently, we rely on heavy external cameras and tethering cables for scoping. Our collaboration has led to a wireless scope which is markedly lighter and avoids the need for cables.”

Harnessing open-source technology

A key strategy for keeping costs low and developing a device that would be appropriate in resource constrained settings, was to use open-source technology and off-the-shelf components.

Due to its low cost (USD10) and ability to handle high-definition (720p) video, the researchers opted for a Raspberry Pi single-board computer module to assist in transmitting video from the tube camera to a standard laptop screen.

“It’s tiny, about half the size of a credit card in its smallest iteration,” explains Lazarus. “Despite its size, it is powerful enough to wirelessly transmit HD video.”

The monitor mode wireless video transmission is made possible using open-source Linux software. 

In addition, Lazarus and Ncube opted to use robust, low-cost CMOS cameras and LED illumination instead of fragile Hopkins rod lenses and expensive fibre optics (both of which are used in wired systems). 

Improving accessibility

Due to a lack of funding and unreliable resource supplies, many rural clinics and medical facilities are barely able to provide basic healthcare for their patients, let alone life-changing/saving interventions, such as minimal access surgery.

 

“It’s tiny, about half the size of a credit card in its smallest iteration.”

It was, in fact, the realisation that most emerging economies and resource-constrained settings struggle to access surgery due to prohibitive costs of devices developed in the advanced economies that sparked Ncube’s interest in biomedical engineering.

“Access to healthcare for all is something at the heart of my work,” he says. “The portability of our device would enable surgeons to aid people with treatment in even the most remote settings.”

Ncube adds that they hope to see their device being used across Africa in the near future and maybe even across the world in the more distant future.

“The main idea of this is to aid medical surgery access, giving people in resource-constrained settings a chance at a healthier life.”

Next steps

With the prototype completed, the researchers have applied to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) for a ‘first in human’ pilot safety trial. While it has been a slow process, Lazarus and Ncube are expecting a positive outcome to their application in the near future.

“If our pilot trial proves that it is safe, that the latency of the wireless video is acceptable and the battery lasts long enough, we believe we would have a device worth taking into more robust trial and perhaps production one day,” says Lazarus.

Ncube adds: “In terms of industrialisation, we aim to find means to make this product in the most sustainable way possible and will employ innovation business models to fund the development.”


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