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Chinese invest in French robots used in brain surgery

A French company at the forefront of medical technology is to develop robots for use in brain surgery.

Chinese health company MicroPort has agreed with four investment funds to invest €40million into Robocath and its project to develop a robot that can remove blood clots in the brain. Rouen-based Robocath is so far known for its machines which put stents into arteries of the heart.

What can they do?

The machines took 10 years to develop and went through five years of development and regulatory checks before they received approval for sale. Stents are small spring devices used to open arteries wider and greatly reduce the likelihood of heart attacks.

Surgeons putting them in place have, until now, had to stand close to the patient to operate while looking at a screen of real-time X-ray images, which exposes them to nearly the same level of X-rays as their patients.

Managing director Lucien Goffart told Connexion: “Surgeons know it is dangerous for them because they operate on lots of people, so X-ray doses accumulate, but before now they did not have any choice. Now, with our machine, they can work from behind a screen protecting them from X-rays with the same degree of safety for the patient.”

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Statistics show that surgeons using X-rays are eight times more likely to get cancer and nine times more likely to develop cataracts. There has often been concern that stars of French technology are developed in France, to be snapped up by foreign countries once they become profitable.

Mr Goffart said this was not the case with Robocath. “We knew, and the people who invested in us from the beginning knew, that to develop further, we would need to raise significant funds,” he said. Under the deal, the Chinese firm will have a quarter of the company’s shares, with the rest remaining in the hands of company founder Philippe Bencteux, who is chairman, and the original investors.

“We will remain as an independent unit, based in Rouen in Normandy, where our machines are made and developed,” said Mr Goffart. “But we will also have the backing of a significant player in global markets for robotic surgery, which already has four surgical robots on sale, who will help both with the selling of our machines and the development of new ones. It is this development partnership which made the interest from MicroPort stand out early on.”

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Links with 5G

The R-one machines use wires to link the surgeon with the operating part of the machine, so are not affected by possible delays in the introduction of 5G wireless technology due to western countries banning Chinese equipment-maker Huawei from their networks. Mr Goffart said it is very likely that future machines will use wireless technology and the potential of 5G with robots is considerable.

“You will have the potential to be able to have the surgeon in one place and the patient in another, without the dedicated IT systems you now need for remote medicine,” he said. “So, for example, if we develop our machine to remove blood clots on the brain to operate remotely, a patient with a stroke or who has had an accident and a blood clot has formed, will be able to be operated on in hospital by a specialist from another hospital across the city using a 5G network, who will not have to fight through traffic to get to the patient. In these sorts of situations, if you operate quickly, you reduce the potential brain damage.”

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He said the Huawei crisis, caused because the US is worried data might be sent to China without authority, exposed some doubts about 5G. We need to have a discussion as a society to see where we are going with 5G.

“From my point of view, it is a great technological achievement, already in operation in many Asian countries, but it is no good imposing it here, or elsewhere, if people do not see any advantages. Again, my personal view, is it is something we should have as quickly as possible.”

Among Robocath’s early backers were French agencies such as Normandie Participations, set up by Normandy’s regional authority and agence de développement, and the state bank Bpifrance, as well as mainly France-based investment funds. It was judged the fourth best French medical start-up by Forbes magazine in 2017, and has been nominated for French start-up of the year contests. Prior to the MicroPort investment, the company raised €13.6million.

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