Researchers Engineer Affordable Endoscope for Low Income Countries

A new endoscope prototype is more intuitive to operate and cuts the cost of manufacture from £80,000 to just £40.

Engineers have developed a prototype endoscope that is efficient and very affordable for use in low to middle-income countries. The novel prototype could cut the cost of manufacture of endoscopes from £80,000 to just £40.

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A redesigned device

The redesigned device also has many benefits beyond being cheaper than traditional ones. It is made to be more intuitive to operate and does not require sterilizing between patients because the part of the device that passes into the gut is thrown away after each procedure. Even the disposable components are cheap costing no more than £2 per patient.

“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.

“Based on the prototype, we estimate the device could be manufactured for around £40. Currently, conventional endoscopes cost roughly £80,000."

Unlike traditional endoscopes, the new prototype is pneumatically operated. It consists of a hand-held control column and a disposable section with a narrow silicon tube and a tiny capsule housing the camera. This last part is disposed of at the end of each procedure.

“Conventional endoscopes require cleaning between patients and that requires a dedicated sterilization suite adding to the costs of the procedure," said Valdastri. 

“The new device is designed for use in locations where healthcare facilities are more basic, perhaps outside of a hospital setting.”

The novel prototype is also smaller which means patients no longer need to be sedated. Furthermore, its silicone base means it is less likely to cause damage to the tissues in the upper digestive tract.

The device does have its limitations. Unlike traditional endoscopes, it cannot take biopsies. The researchers are now seeking to trial the effectiveness of the new device against conventional endoscopes.

Diagnosing gastric and oesophageal cancers

Professor Valdastri believes the device could have a particularly large impact in China where in 2015 more than one million people were diagnosed with gastric and oesophageal cancers. The country has struggled to implement screening programmes in rural China because of a shortage of doctors.

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“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," said Valdastri.

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

Valdastri has indicated he hopes to have the device in use within four years.