i-PRO's Medical Vision Division develops camera modules used in endoscopes and microscopes and supplies them to medical device manufacturers around the world. The cameras that serve as the "eyes" of doctors in critical situations that affect human life have evolved over the years, taking into account various needs in the medical field. We interviewed Masahiko Hosoya, who heads the Medical Vision Division, about the progress of the company and what is required for its future growth.
Contribute To Society with Technologies Never Seen Before
Q. You graduated from Tohoku University.
I was born in Hokkaido. I moved to Sendai when I entered university, then to Yokohama when I started working, and gradually moved south for the past 10 years or so, as I have a connection with Fukuoka.
Q. After graduating from university, you went to work for Matsushita Communication Industrial Co., Ltd..
I wanted to contribute to society through manufacturing, and I also wanted to create something new that had never existed in the world, rather than just making things. The business of medical vision is exactly like this, and I feel really lucky to be able to be involved in this way.
Q. After joining the company, you worked as a system engineer, but even then you were doing work related to medical care.
I was in charge of hospital system development for five years from 1994. At that time, I studied a lot of medical terminology in my own way. I couldn't communicate with nurses and doctors who didn't understand the terminology, so I couldn't set up the system. I learned not only the terminology, but also what nurses and doctors were doing in the field. I learned not only the terminology, but also what nurses and doctors were doing in the field.
After that, I was in charge of several businesses at the same time, including the medical field and security cameras.
Q. The demands of medical and surveillance are completely different.
Basically, there are many common aspects because they are both video technologies. Elements such as sensitivity and resolution are commonly required. On the other hand, the subjects for surveillance are different, such as people and backgrounds for surveillance, and internal organs and other parts of the human body for medical care, so the required image quality is different.
Strengths Of i-PRO Cameras Cultivated In The Medical Field
Q. What exactly is the image quality required in the medical field?
The main difference from security cameras is that in the medical field, "color reproducibility" is more important. This is because doctors judge the condition of blood vessels and internal organs by their colors.
For this reason, spectroscopic camera modules are used in the medical field. This is a system that uses a prism to divide light into the three primary colors of light, RGB (red, green, and blue). A security camera has only one sensor, but a spectral camera has three sensors to catch each of the RGB colors. In addition, one more sensor is required to handle near-infrared light, which is invisible to the eye. Near-infrared light can be controlled independently from RGB, which is visible light, so it does not become noise and image processing becomes easier.
i-PRO has decided to manufacture the prisms used in this spectral camera in-house. Until now, we had been procuring them from outside suppliers, so we could not produce cameras to meet our customers' requirements without a certain amount of lots. However, by manufacturing the prisms in-house, we will be able to achieve wavelength characteristics that meet the customer's requirements, even if only in small lots. This is a very big advantage. i-PRO is working as a company to respond to diverse needs with a sense of speed, and we will continue to promote this in Medical Vision.
Q. You mentioned a small diameter camera module as a device/system offered by the Medical Vision Division, along with a spectroscopic camera module.
One of the differences between security cameras and medical cameras is the size of the camera head, and the small diameter camera module is less than 1 mm in size.
The same is true of spectroscopic cameras, but the role of our cameras is to visualize the invisible. There are many places in the human body that ordinary cameras cannot reach, but with this small diameter camera module, we can reach those places and "visualize" them.
Also, the smaller the camera mounted on a medical device, the more space there is for medical procedure equipment. What this means is not only that we can "see" parts of the human body that we could not see, but also that we can perform procedures while looking at them. In other words, the miniaturization of the camera is directly related to the improvement of the quality of medical care.
Q. If the number of procedures can be reduced, the patient's quality of life can be maintained. Are there any other technologies that are important in the medical field?
Medical devices require high-temperature sterilization (autoclave). We knew that repeated use of this process would degrade the adhesive between the prism and the sensor, resulting in deterioration of image quality. We overcame this issue by formulating multiple adhesives to be used and researching curing methods. This is one of the cornerstones of i-PRO's medical cameras gaining support from the medical field and gaining a large share of the market.
New Technologies Changing Healthcare Around The World
Q. Could you tell us about technology trends in medical cameras?
I mentioned that the role of our cameras is to visualize the invisible, and a technology called ICG fluorescence contrast imaging, which uses drugs to visualize the inside of the human body, is attracting attention. When a drug is injected into the body and illuminated with a special light, the drug emits a faint light. This can be used in a variety of ways, such as detecting the flow of blood or locating cancer cells by attaching them to the body.
Cameras that can capture this faint light will be needed in the future. The weaker the light is, the more specialized cameras that can capture it will be needed in the medical field, and we would like to respond to such demands.
Q. AI technology is in the spotlight these days. Is there room for AI to be used in the medical field?
In the world of surveillance, we are entering an era in which AI "sees" instead of humans, but in the field of medicine, it is the on-site doctor who "sees". That is still a difference.
However, there is a movement to utilize AI in the medical field. One such example that is actually under development is the use of AI to learn from the experience of doctors and use it in surgery and other procedures. Experienced and talented doctors can tell where blood vessels are located, for example, where the ureter is located, based on subtle ups and downs in the body and many years of experience. Making use of this, when an inexperienced doctor performs an operation, the AI clearly indicates the location of the blood vessels and other parts of the body.
However, I think this is a very high threshold to release this as a product. It would be fine if it were an alert that says, "This is a blood vessel, so be careful," but if it says, "This is a blood vessel," it becomes a diagnosis. If you say, "This endoscope identifies the location of blood vessels," you have to gather all the necessary clinical trial data. That alone would take years. Research is underway at universities and other institutions, but practical application is still some way off.
Q. What is the position of i-PRO medical cameras in the global market?
As a camera module for endoscopes and microscopes, we have the top share in the global market and continue to grow.
Spectroscopic camera modules, which consist of a prism and a sensor laminated together, are technologically competitive products in the world, and are highly regarded for their ability to improve color reproduction through spectroscopy and to visualize drugs using near-infrared light, and market research indicates that they will continue to grow in the future. Market research shows that it will continue to grow in the future.
Q. Various medical device manufacturers around the world use i-PRO camera modules.
About 60% of our customers are actually American companies. About 20% are in Europe, 10% in Japan, and the remaining 10% in China. We supply cameras to them, and they integrate the cameras into their endoscopes and spread them around the world.
Anticipating And Fulfilling Future Needs
Q. What challenges do you see for the future?
We need to know more and more about medical care. I think we are still only seeing what is needed in the medical field from the perspective of cameras. Medical equipment is evolving rapidly. We have repeatedly held discussions with medical equipment manufacturers to create cameras that respond to this evolution and have accumulated know-how.
But that is not enough. We need to talk not only with medical equipment manufacturers but also with doctors in the field. It is important to know what they want. We need to know what they want three to five years from now. We need to keep an eye on this, make various preparations, and propose commercialization to medical device manufacturers. We want to create such a flow.
Q. How about your product lineup?
In the medical field, there are a variety of requests, whether it is the angle of view or the output interface. We are reviewing our design process and modularizing it so that customers can freely choose what they want. Of course, product development through discussions with medical device manufacturers is important, but in addition, we would like to prepare a product lineup that can meet the needs of those who have certain needs and are looking for a camera that can meet them. Currently, we are making proposals to individual manufacturers, but in the future, we would like to post our product lineup on our website so that customers can freely choose from them.
We would like to respond to a wide variety of customer needs through the in-house production of prisms and modularized design.
Q. Finally, what are your ambitions for the future?
The "i" in i-PRO stands for "imaging," "intelligence," and "integration". We would like to create cameras that embody these meanings. Even if the fields of use are different, such as medical or security, all products are connected to the "i" when traced back to their origin. That is the kind of manufacturing I would like to pursue.
For me, the biggest "i" is imaging. Imaging in the medical field is closely linked to the improvement of medical quality and safety. Medical care will continue to evolve rapidly in the future. Therefore, we must continue to evolve as well. There is no end to the pursuit of imaging in the medical field.