Ausralia and New Zealand, 04/10/19 | Story | Company In the beginning was the gastrocamera
In a six-part series spanning from now until the end of the 100th anniversary year of Olympus, we will be presenting episodes that highlight the successful history of the company and its core values. We begin with a story about how a single product paved the way for Olympus to enter the medical field – the gastrocamera.
Nowadays, endoscopes are indispensable for the provision of modern medical care. Even though the idea of using a medical device to observe the insides of a human body had already existed long before, Olympus was the world’s first company to develop and deploy a gastrocamera.
In 1949, a young 29-year-old doctor visited Olympus and prompted the development of a camera that could capture images inside patients’ stomachs. His name, Dr. Tatsuro Uji from the Department of Surgery at Tokyo University Hospital in Koishikawa. Back then, stomach cancer was the leading cause of death in Japan. Early detection and treatment of cancer was therefore the great medical challenge of the time.
Thirst for innovation
Mutsuo Sugiura, the developer at Olympus (left), and Dr. Tatsuro Uji, performing gastric photography (right).
Dr. Uji’s request did not go unheard. Mutsuo Sugiura, an engineer at Olympus who was the same age as Dr. Uji and with a similar thirst for innovation, replied: “As long as there is light, a lens and a film, a camera can take pictures anywhere.” This denoted the starting point for the development of the gastrocamera, driven by Olympus, in collaboration with doctors.
The development process turned out to be quite a rocky road. The engineers repeatedly encountered seemingly dead ends and had to start again from scratch. Completely new paths were taken. For example, rather than using rubber for the insertion pipe, which could potentially erode, plastic was deployed. This had just recently been launched in Japan at that time. And to provide a source of light inside the dark stomach, a microlamp had to be developed as well.
Initially, there were ideas that involved filling the stomach with water when taking the pictures. Halfway through, however, Olympus revised the method. Instead, the stomach was to be inflated with air pumps to allow for better observation of the area. Nevertheless, it was only after the film had subsequently been developed that it was possible to say whether the images had actually been successful.
Despite the numerous challenges, the developers persistently met the requirements of the doctors and turned new ideas into reality. Then, the excitement reached fever pitch before the first application, as a quote from Dr. Uji reveals: “My hands trembled in front of Patient 1 and it was hard to convey the necessary level of self-confidence. Subconsciously, I prayed for our success.”
In 1950, the first Olympus gastrocamera, the GT-1, was finally ready. It was presented at a meeting of the Japan Surgical Association on November 3. Many newspapers reported on the exciting innovation and the developers at the Olympus research labs were besieged to such a degree by reporters that they complained they could no longer pursue their regular work.
In 1952, commercial distribution began under the product name “Gastrocamera”. Although some believed that “stomach camera” was a better choice for the product name, Olympus opted for “Gastro”, in line with Dr. Uji’s suggestion.
Dedication to the customer
When the cameras were then deployed in a real clinical environment, they initially proved to be susceptible to faults and malfunctions. Doctors were often unable to take photographs that could be used for diagnosis. Olympus was temporarily flooded with product returns and repair requests from doctors.
Had it not been for a dedicated group of doctors who believed in the potential of this new innovative medical product, the gastrocamera is likely to have disappeared from the market only shortly after it had seen the light of day. These doctors founded the Gastrocamera Research Group Meeting (the predecessor of the current “Japan Gastroenterological Endoscopy Society”), to facilitate better use of the gastrocamera. Olympus received a large amount of feedback from this group, which led to numerous improvements being made in the gastrocamera.
Moreover, with the Gastrocamera Society, a mainstay for the distribution of the gastrocamera throughout Japan, was created. Enthusiastic users actively promoted the new product and provided technical advice for the benefit of others.
The gastrocamera could also celebrate its first successes abroad. In June 1951, patent applications were filed in the USA, Great Britain, France and West Germany. In 1956, it was launched in the USA, China and Sweden, and in 1962 in Brazil and India. In 1960, ten years after the launch of the GT-I, the number of gastrocameras sold had reached the 1,000-unit mark.
Long term view
Through the joint development of the gastrocamera with a group of physicians, Olympus began to understand what was expected of a medical device and how products were evaluated. This has become a cornerstone of our actions and it is something that continues to this day.
The development of the gastrocamera began with the idea of a doctor being put into practice. This long-term perspective and openness to new ideas also later helped Olympus to develop new generations of fiberscopes, videoscopes and endoscopes. The history of the development of the gastrocamera therefore demonstrates to us how important it is to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers, to listen to their ideas and wishes, and to continue taking new challenges with a view to the future.