Canadarm-Based Medical Robot Passes FDA Review

Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR). Image credit: Canadian Space Agency

A medical robot based on the Canadarm has recently passed FDA review. Called the Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR), it lets doctors perform surgery while a patient is inside an MRI scanner, allowing for more complex and difficult surgeries with greater reliability. It’s sold by Insight Medbotics, after being developed by both MDA and the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation (CSii), and it’s yet another example of space tech having terrestrial impact.

In an email exchange, SpaceQ corresponded with representatives from all three organizations about IGAR, the company, and its development. This included Fazila Seker, CEO of Insight Medbotics; MDA Director of Technology Strategy Andrew Allen; and Debra Vivian from CSii.

Robotics in an MRI

IGAR is, Seker explained, “the first and only robotics system with a FDA 510(k) clearance to work inside an MRI bore.” In other words, it’s the first robotic surgery device that can actually work inside an MRI machine as it’s scanning, allowing doctors to have a live, clear, three-dimensional view of the surgical area as they’re doing their work. 

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), in a backgrounder on IGAR, said that the device “is expected to provide increased access, precision and dexterity, resulting in highly accurate and minimally invasive procedures.” Just like the Canadarm, it can also interface with a wide variety of different instruments to perform different medical tasks, including both biopsy devices and tissue-removing instruments.

More than that, though, it can actually act semi-autonomously, much like the MDA-made space manipulators that preceded it. If programmed by a physician beforehand, the CSA said, the robot can act “in an automated fashion.” Radiologists, thanks to this autonomy, can use “specially designed software to tag the potential target and tell IGAR what path to take.” The software will help the radiologist make sure that they get to the right spot. 

Pre-programming IGAR, Seker said, “augments physicians’ skills,” and “helps to standardize physician skill level for this procedure and makes it easier to train new physicians.” Avari said to the CSA that “the automated robot is capable of placing the biopsy and ablation tools within 1 mm of the lesion in question with a high degree of targeting accuracy.”  And as the robot fits onto the patient bed, it easily travels in and out of the MRI opening. 

The successful FDA 510(k) clearance of IGAR for breast biopsy indications was announced on September 12th. Seker said that the technology could eventually be applied to “a range of goals for more targeted care,” including targeted therapy delivery (like drug injections and surgery), and treating other “soft tissue” cancers such as liver, kidney, and prostate cancer. 

Developing IGAR

IGAR is the result of a long collaboration between MDA and CSII. In 2009, they were granted a $15 million grant from the Network Centres of Excellence CECR program to, Vivian said, “leverage Canadian investment in space technology for use in the development of Image Guided Automated Robotics (IGAR) and support the research and development of IP generated by researchers in the field of medical robotics and related technologies.” 

Under the guidance of CSii’s CEO, Dr. Mehran Anvari, MDA and CSii began working together to create IGAR. Dr. Anvari is an expert in surgical robotics and minimal access surgery, and (according to Vivian) “successfully performed 23 tele-robotic operations on patients in a North Bay Hospital from his tele-robotic suite at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton.” He also worked with NASA and the CSA on the NASA NEEMO mission, which had Dr. Anvari operating a tele-robotic device in a pod stationed on the ocean floor off the coast of the Florida Keys. 

After that experience, he decided to work with MDA on combining the experience he’d developed with their expertise in creating accurate and precise robotic manipulators. IGAR leverages the work that MDA did on the Canadarm, Canadarm2 and Dextre, and Allen said that “MDA worked side-by-side with CSii to understand what was needed in a clinical setting within the constraints [imposed by] MRI imaging equipment and the environment.”  

It wasn’t easy to apply it to the difficult environment inside the opening of an MRI machine. They’re gigantic electromagnets, after all, and this was a surgical robot. But, Allen said, as the medical robotics team at MDA “had full access to the broader multi-disciplinary team of space robotics experts as they developed the robotic device and its control algorithms,” they were able to get it done. 

The teams at MDA and CSii under Anvari, Allen said, “built upon the expertise and robotics control software that MDA brought from the Canadarm,” using their “systems engineering techniques, hazard control methods, and safety-critical robot control software” to develop the medical robotic mechanism. 

And while the device “evolved throughout the development,” Allen said, it still carried the heritage from Canadarm. “The hazard control and robust control algorithms maintain a strong linkage to the Canadarm.” 

In addition to the funding mentioned above, CSii also received a $626,030 contract in 2015 through the Build in Canada Innovation Program to test the teleoperative capabilities of IGAR. Dr Nathalie Duchesne, co-investigator on the clinical study and breast radiologist at Saint-Sacrement Hospital in Quebec City, told the CSA that she believes “that IGAR will improve sample collection because it will be less operator-dependent, and it will be consistent from one doctor to another, from one patient to the other, and from one lesion to the other.”

Insight Medbotics

Insight Medbotics principally serves as the commercialization arm of this whole process. The company is headed by Seker, who joined in 2023 after 20 years of experience commercializing new technologies.

The intellectual property related to IGAR remains with both CSii and MDA; Insight has the exclusive license to commercialize the technology, and serves as the commercial partner to CSii’s research partner regarding IGAR. Their role is principally, Seker said, “developing clinical and commercial partnerships to deploy the technology for patient benefit.” Seker implied that Insight took the lead on the FDA approval process, saying that “[o]ur team  submitted all of our original testing and designs to the FDA.” 

CSii remains a seed investor and board member, and Insight is positioned to take advantage of other technologies that CSii might develop in the future. 

While Insight didn’t say whether they had lined up customers yet, they are in the process of raising investment and scaling the business. They’ve already had a $435K seed round through McMaster Seed Fund, and are in the midst of a Series A round to, Seker said, “continue developing the IGAR technology while commercializing it for other biopsies and targeted therapies.” They’re also a part of the Synapse Life Science Consortium, the Hamilton-based Innovation Factory, and MaRS Discovery District. 

Beyond that, their next steps after this FDA approval is to further explore and develop robotics in the medical field. Seker said that robotics are “the missing link” that can bring together AI and medicine, particularly in MRI, and that they aim to “leverage our expertise in robotics to partner with other market leaders in AI, MRI and therapeutics.” They hope that building those partnerships will, in time, create “an ecosystem of technologies” that help make MRI-based treatment easier and more practical to use.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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