Sweden and Japan join forces on ageing population challenges

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An advanced robot that can perform high precision surgery. Automated patient voice analysis as a method for medical diagnosis and individual treatment. Swedish and Japanese researchers can now start to work more closely together in areas like this to tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

Living longer and healthier in an ageing world. That was the topic and title of an interdisciplinary workshop, which also served to launch the strategic partnership between KTH, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm University and the University of Tokyo, one of the world’s most renowned seats of learning.

Aside from researchers from the four universities, the event was also attended by representatives from the Japanese Embassy and the management teams of all four higher education institutions. The opening speech was given by guest of honour Queen Silvia, who has a deep, personal commitment to care of the elderly and dementia.

The topic of Thursday’s workshop at Nobel Forum at Karolinska Institutet had been chosen with care. Ageing population is one of the clearest examples in which Japan, Sweden and many Western countries share a major social challenge – an upside-down population pyramid with increasing numbers of elderly people living longer.

“But healthy ageing is already possible. The challenge lies in making ageing even better tomorrow,” said one of the introductory speakers, Laura Fratiglioni, professor at the Aging Research Center at Karolinska Institutet.

Participants from KTH at the workshop included Joakim Lundeberg, professor in molecular biology at KTH, Erik Lindahl, professor in theoretical and computional biophysics at KTH ,both working at SciLifeLab Britt Östlund, professor in technical health care science at the School of Technology and Health at KTH, and Hedvig Kjellström, professor of computer science at KTH.

One of the things Hedvig Kjellström’s research group is working on is an automated system that can identify early signs of Alzheimer’s to complement visiting a doctor at a memory clinic. Here a robot can be used in the home to carry out tests with the patient several times a day. This is important because keeping your memory fit day to day plays a major role and there is a risk that symptoms could be missed at a visit to the memory clinic.

Hedvig Kjellström looks forward to greater cooperation with Tokyo.

“Japan and Tokyo University are a long way ahead on robotics and artificial intelligence and I look forward to finding new contexts where we can benefit from each other’s expertise.”

Erik Lindahl, professor at KTH and Stockholm University and linked to SciLifeLab, a national centre for molecular life science, believes that the partnership will trigger new, tangible research collaboration on individualised treatment, models and calculations.

“Personalised medicine is on the rise and we’re facing a revolution in this respect,” says Erik Lindahl. “The partnership with Tokyo looks extremely promising for those of us representing the universities in Stockholm. It’s in the interface between the medical research carried out at KI, science at SU and the opportunity to develop technology and methods at KTH. Another solid conclusion from the workshop is that we want to create new, shared initiatives around modelling and calculations, where both parties are strong.”

KTH’s President Sigbritt Karlsson is looking forward to deeper collaboration with the University of Tokyo.

“From KTH’s perspective, it’s extremely significant to be one of ten partners, alongside SU and KI, selected by the University of Tokyo. It strengthens KTH’s position on the global stage and shows that we are a top ranking institution. The partnership will enable us to learn a great deal, and to continue to develop KTH’s strong areas of research.”

The Japanese government is currently investing heavily in research into ageing, as Mamoru Mitsuishi, professor at the University of Tokyo, explained. Researchers at the university are now developing advanced robotics that can be used to carry out surgery at entirely new levels of precision.

Professor Mitsuishi’s research group has produced a prototype surgical robot with a ”smart arm” that is manoeuvred by a surgeon and can be used for eye operations, for example. The smart arm is far more stable than a trembling human arm.

“The surgical robots market is growing by 11 per cent a year, which is twice the rate between 2015 and 2020. As nanodiagnostics, bioinformatics and tissue research make strides, robot-based medicine will become increasingly important and more common,” he asserted.

The strategic partnership with the Stockholm universities will enable experts in different fields to discuss how we can develop a sustainable society from a number of different angles, according to Mamoru Mitsuishi.

“Together with the three universities in Stockholm, in this partnership we have built a broad interdisciplinary platform for future research collaboration in relevant areas in society. The workshop on healthy ageing is one example of this,” he says.

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