New technology

New spinout: Scanning platform to be used for patients with arthritis

Robot Scientist Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu and Senior Consultant Søren Just have developed a scanning platform that can measure the amount of disease activity in arthritis patients. The invention is now to be developed further in the new company, Ropca Holding Aps.

By Jane Thoning Callesen, , 1/9/2020

Four years ago, Robot Scientist Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuth and Senior Consultant Søren Just had a conversation at the Kratholm school in Bellinge, where their children attend.

Rajeeth, who has researched robots at SDU since 2007, wanted to bring new technology into play in the health care system. Søren, who is a rheumatologist, faced a challenge with regards to diagnosing arthritis patients. 

They decided to find a solution together, and after extensive research in both SDU’s laboratories and OUH’s ambulatories, they’ve developed a technological platform, Ropca Ultrasound, which can scan and analyze the hands of arthritis patients.

The invention has the potential to improve the treatment and quality of life for people with a serious disease

Søren E. Frandsen, Head of SDU RIO

Now, the two inventors have founded a company, Ropca Holding Aps, to transform the prototype into a finished product. 

-We are thrilled over the support from our investors. Our next step is to commercialize the invention so it can be of use in the hospitals, states Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu.

Ultrasound is important

There were multiple aspects to the challenge that Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu and Søren Just got themselves into. 

When a person gets multiple swollen and sore joints it can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis. In Denmark, it is estimated that around one percent of the population is affected by this disease, and
a quick diagnose is crucial to ensure the best possible treatment. 

If joints are scanned with ultrasound as quickly as possible, it will be easier to detect if there are any signs of inflammatory arthritis. By doing this, physicians will be able to see the pathological progression of the disease and thereby start treatment earlier. Ultrasound can also be used to ensure that patients with rheumatoid arthritis are well-treated. 

Distinct standards

Ultimately, ultrasound scanning is expensive and time-consuming. It is usually done by a specialist in ultrasound scanning; however, they are scarce. Because of this, patients usually wait a long time before they are examined by a rheumatologist.

During the last few years, there have been distinct standards of how ultrasound scanning of the joints should be conducted, and how these pictures ought to be interpreted. These standards make it possible to automatize the process, and this is exactly what Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu and Søren Just have done.

Their solution consists of a platform with a robotic arm that can be modified to work with ultrasound probes, that already exists at the hospitals. This way, the robot itself will be able to scan patients’ hands by the fixed standards. The images that the scanner automatically takes during the process will also be analyzed by an artificial intelligence algorithm. 

Smarter than doctors

-This gives physicians a quick understanding of the progression of the diseases which they, in turn, can use for scheduling further treatment of the patient, says Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu, who works at SDU Robotics—which belongs to the Mærsk McKinney Møller Institute at SDU.

Future perspectives

According to the current plan, the first CE-labeled product should hit the market in approximately two years. Later, the technology may be developed further to include other kinds of scanning at the hospitals.

Along the way, it has become evident that the image analysis from artificial intelligence is even more accurate than what a group of physicians would achieve.

When this became clear, physicians started to take us seriously, recalls Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu.

-It was an aha-moment and one of the small successes during our process. Now, we know that artificial intelligence guarantees a consistent estimation of the images and this improves the quality of the treatment, he says. 

No fear of technology

So far, the patients who have had their hands checked by the invention, have received it well, says the project’s second founder, Søren Just, who is a Senior Consultant in rheumatology at the Medical Department, OUH Svendborg  and visiting researcher at the Department of Clinical Research.

-The response has been tremendously positive, amongst both young and old. There has been no fear of technology so far.

On the contrary, our examinations point to the fact that people do not mind being examined by a robot if it means that they will get a quick, precise and standardized diagnosis, he says. 

A unique approach

Søren Just hopes that the invention can lead to shorter waiting lists and greater flexibility for patients. But first, the design, functionality, and composition of the components must be fine-tuned, with operational reliability and potential marketing in mind.

-This is the first time that I’ve started a company, so there is a lot to learn. However, it is a fun process and I look forward to seeing how everything will evolve, states Søren Just and adds:

-As a physician, it has been incredible to collaborate with the Mærsk-institute at SDU. Combining clinical and technological understanding creates a unique approach to the challenges that occur along the way, and it has been incredible to take part in.

Pride at SDU

Business developers at SDU RIO, who support researchers from SDU and the hospitals in the region of Southern Denmark with the establishment of new spin-outs, have played an important role in the establishment of the company. The head of SDU RIO, Søren E. Frandsen is enthusiastic about the result:

-Typically, we get 3-4 research-based spin-outs every year from SDU and the region of Southern Denmark. It is especially interesting when there are multiple disciplines at play. The invention has the potential to improve the treatment and quality of life for people with a serious disease, he says.

-It proves that we are capable of creating high-quality innovation when we cooperate across different fields, as we have done here between robot technology and medical science.

Ropca Holding Aps

  • The newly invented company is owned by Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu, Søren Just, SDU’s own science venture company (SVD A/S) and five private investors.
  • The project started to accelerate when Energy Funen supported it with a quarter of a million DKK during the start-up phase.
  • Later, the project became a so-called ‘lighthouse project’ at SDU, and more funds came through. 
Meet the researcher

Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu is Associate Professor at SDU Robotics at The Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute.

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Meet the researcher

Søren Just is a visiting researcher at the Department of Clinical Research, the Research Unit Afd M in Svendborg, next to his doctor's position. He is also working on a PhD thesis in the field of arthritis.

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