The government will team with leading manufacturers and universities on joint development of a robot-assisted operating theatre, aiming for its practical use within 10 years.
A domestic team comprised of leading manufacturers, including Hitachi, Ltd., Panasonic Corp. and Toshiba Corp., and five universities will vie for a leading position in the global medical equipment race with the United States, where robotic technologies are already being used in the field.
The planned technologies in the robot-assisted operating theatre will enable doctors to perform operations with precision and simultaneously check magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) readings to monitor the condition of patients.
Developers aim to have robot arms, which can move with far greater accuracy than human hands, be interconnected with MRIs and other devices, enabling them to exchange related data.
MRIs are generally used in preoperative examinations. In a robot-assisted operating theatre, however, doctors can perform operations while using MRIs to examine such details as the spread of tumours, allowing for a more accurate examination of whether a cancer has been completely removed.
Having a device that can quickly ascertain the malignancy of tumours will also help doctors decide whether they need to be removed. By examining affected areas in tandem with test results shown on the monitor in the envisaged room, surgeons can carry out operations while keeping abreast of the condition of patients' constantly changing conditions.
Five universities and 14 companies are to take part in the joint development, including Hitachi, a Toshiba-affiliated medical equipment maker and Tokyo Women's Medical University.
In the United States, a state-of-the-art surgery-assisting robot known as the da Vinci Surgical System was developed in the 1990s. About 3,000 units have been sold around the world, with about 180 introduced in Japan.
The da Vinci robot opens a hole one to two centimeters in diameter on a patient's body and inserts an endoscope or robot arm through the hole. A surgeon then performs an operation by examining three-dimensional imagery. The technology's main benefits are precise, small surgical cuts and minimal blood loss.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's approved the robot in 2009, after which sales began nationwide.
Surgery to remove prostate cancer using the da Vinci system was first covered by public insurance in 2012, and since then, the number of hospitals employing the system has increased. One system set is estimated to cost about ¥200 million (S$2.46 million) to ¥300 million.
Because each company and university in Japan develops medical equipment independently, they lack the perspective of having compatible devices used together as part of a single system. As a result, Japanese development of an advanced surgery-assisting robot like the da Vinci system has lagged behind.
Two universities and four companies, including Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd., Panasonic and Keio University, plan to develop an endoscopic robot that has a movable camera and several arms that can be operated separately. The new robot will enhance surgical safety while broadening doctors' field of vision.
With ¥3.5 billion allocated to the budget this fiscal year, the government will provide financial support for the companies and universities involved.
Due to an aging society and increasing demand in emerging nations, the global market for medical equipment has grown by about 8 per cent each year, and is expected to continue expanding.
Despite high technological skill, Japanese manufacturers tend to lag behind in new product development in the field because of the time needed to commercialize such products. Imports of medical equipment greatly exceed exports-in 2012, the gap was about ¥700 billion.