The Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Basel was one of the first residents at Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area. We have had a chance to catch up with the department’s head, Prof. Dr. Philippe Cattin, to discuss previous achievements, upcoming challenges and a defining project for his organization.
The MIRACLE Project is the DBE’s flagship project. What is it about?
Prof. Cattin: We are working on a minimally invasive laser osteotome, a flexible endoscope that enables cutting bones with laser light inside the body through small incisions. Cutting bones with laser is not a completely novel idea, it was actually tried only one year after the laser had been invented – with little success, however. It wasn’t until around 2010 when people found out how bones need to be cut with laser without impairing healing. Initially, we founded a spin-off company to build a rather big robot to perform the cutting. The MIRACLE Project goes one step back to basic research to develop the missing technology for building a miniaturized version of the robot suitable for minimally invasive surgery.
Virtual reality is an important part of the project. How is this technology used?
Prof. Cattin: We are not only looking at the process of cutting bones, but rather at all the steps required to cut a bone. This starts with the planning phase, the surgical simulation, and finally the surgery itself. We have dedicated professors for the different research areas. There is a laser physics group and robotics group, each headed by an assistant professor. In addition to the technical supervision of the entire project, I am responsible for the navigation group. In this group we use virtual reality to improve and speed up the planning, which can take several hours or even days using conventional technology. Our system, by the way, is also used by the graphics card heavyweight NVIDIA for demonstration purposes at their conferences. Last but not least, we have the smart implants group in the MIRACLE project, responsible for the translation of the developed technology.
When do you expect your VR technology to be used in surgery?
Prof. Cattin: Our VR system is being used by the University Hospital in Basel since the beginning of the year. All elective aneurysma cases in Basel are pre-planned using our software. Currently we are implementing a direct connection to the Hospital’s data base to enable direct loading of the data sets with our VR glasses. There is also an extension we are working on that allows several people to view the same patient simultaneously, which will be implemented in the months ahead. This allows experts in different parts of the world to plan a complex surgery together.
Imaging and image analysis seem to be key topics for the DBE…
Prof. Cattin: Yes, we have several groups with imaging projects, like Prof. Bieri working on novel MR sequences for example for the lung or Prof. Salameh who is working on low-filed MRI scanners. However, there are also efforts going on in image analysis. One project develops very accurate techniques to track the shrinking of the spinal cord, as it occurs with neuro-degenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis. Most of today’s data-sets in this field are acquired with a one-millimeter resolution. Thanks to our image analysis software, we can already observe shrinking of the spinal cord if the radius changes by 50 micrometers.
So there is a lot of research going on. How active is the DBE in teaching?
Prof. Cattin: So far, the research part has been dominant. Starting this autumn, we will have a master program in biomedical engineering. There are still some preparations needed, mainly construction work, but we already have a lecture hall for a maximum of forty students here at Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area in Allschwil. We are hoping to start with around 20 students. We also have a very active Ph.D. program which was started when the Department of Biomedical Engineering was founded.
The DBE has produced a number of spin-off companies. Is that a goal of yours?
Prof. Cattin: We currently have nine spin-off companies. It is not a core target, it rather came out of frustration. Bringing innovations to the patient can be quite complicated. Usually, you hire Ph.D. students to solve a certain problem. The students write their papers and in exchange, they get their degree. This is how far universities normally go. However, the students defending their Ph.D. is not enough for medical doctors to use their prototypes in a clinical setting on patients. It first has to go through a translational phase and be transformed into a medical product. Initially, we tried to convince big companies to come in at this point, but this was not very successful. Therefore we started founding our own companies. The first was AOT (Advanced Osteotomy Tools AG), the company I already mentioned, which builds the robot to cut bones with laser light. It has around 20 full-time employees at the moment and we are planning on treating the first patient later this year.
Even if spin-offs may not be a core target, do you still encourage founders?
Prof. Cattin: Absolutely. We are trying to create an ecosystem at the DBE that really fosters the formation of such spin-offs. This is also reflected by the fact that Basel University has a new associated vice president of innovation, Professor Zeilhofer, who is part of the DBE. Moreover, we made an effort to have InnoSuisse close to our facilities. In addition, we created a venture fund which has several million Francs to invest into young medtech companies. Creating spin-off companies takes up a lot of time, but we have learned that it is necessary if we really believe in our ideas and want to bring them to the patients. Of course, that is not the only way we translate our technologies into products. We also patent and licence out our innovations. At the moment, we are in negotiation with an external company to licence one of our patents for a cheap navigation system for spinal surgery.
What would you consider the DBE’s biggest success so far?
Prof. Cattin: We managed to get two SNSF professors, which is a big win for a young department such as ours. Moreover, the MIRACLE Project got funded by the Werner Siemens foundation. We are very grateful for that.
What milestones are next on your agenda?
We were founded in 2014. The main elements for successfully running a department have been implemented. Above all, the key positions are covered with excellent people. Now we have entered a consolidation phase, where we try to stabilize what has been achieved so far and make fine adjustments. Of course, there are still goals and challenges ahead of us. Since we are mainly funded by third-party money, our assistant professor positions will expire. Even though we have been very successful in this area in the past, we now have to ensure that we find ways to finance our professors in the future. So let me just say: if there are any big investors out there, we would be happy to get in touch with them!
Prof. Dr. Philippe Cattin is the head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Basel. He received his B.Sc. degree from the University of Applied Science in Brugg/Windisch in 1991. In 1995 he obtained the M.Sc. degree in computer science and in 2003 the Ph.D. degree in robotics from ETH Zurich. He is the founder of the Medical Image Analysis Center at the Medical Faculty of the University of Basel. His research interests include medical image analysis, image-guided therapy and robotics-guided laser osteotomy.