Gastroenterologists Owe Their Modern Techniques to Doctors Shinya and Wolff

Though both of these men initially practiced as surgeons, today’s gastroenterologists can thank Japanese-born doctor Hiromi Shinya and his for his contribution to their field of medicine. The colonoscopy has become a common procedure used to diagnose and treat conditions of the gastrointestinal tract.

Dr. Shinya’s Life and Career

Born in 1935 in Yunagawa, Japan, Hiromi Shinya graduated medical school in 1960 and was selected to an exclusive internship at the United States Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, a placement requiring excellent English skills. This paved his path to the US where he entered residency at Beth Israel in New York City as a general surgeon. While he was a senior resident in the 1960’s, he and cardiothoracic surgeon William Wolff began collaborating over their shared interest in a new fiber-optic endoscope technology, which they thought could improve screening for colon polyps and cancers.

A Major Development

In 1969, Shinya and Wolff performed some of the first modern colonoscopies. The advantage of this new method was its ability to inspect the entire length of the large intestine. Previously, intestinal polyps were only observed when painful symptoms occurred, and required abdominal surgery when identified. The new procedure removed much of the uncertainty surrounding this medical issue. Additionally, they honed the technique so that only one physician was needed to perform a colonoscopy while other methods required two.

Eventually, they tested Dr. Shinya’s design, a tiny wire loop that could remove a polyp right during the procedure, eliminating the need for surgery entirely. The team performed over 2,000 procedures before making their findings public to the medical community, which they did in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1973. Gastroenterologists were initially slow to adopt this approach, wary of it being surgical in nature, but by the 1980’s the colonoscopy had become a widely accepted practice.

Importance of Colonoscopies

Before these two doctors changed the landscape of this field of medicine, the danger of intestinal polyps was underestimated. Today, it is common knowledge among physicians that they often progress from small benign growths to carcinoma, or cancerous tumors. For this reason, many medical societies recommend a screening at age 50, followed by another each decade thereafter. It is currently the best tool available to prevent the development of colon cancers. It has been estimated that each year, this procedure prevents tens of thousands of new cases of cancer.

In addition to its use for preventing and diagnosing cancer, gastroenterologists in the US use colonic endoscopy to diagnose and observe other diseases of the GI tract, most notably Irritable Bowel Disease, Crohn’s Disease, and ulcerative colitis.

The newest enhancement of this type of exam is the Virtual Colonoscopy, which uses computer imaging to show the findings of a completely non-invasive scan. This technique is still under development and testing, and it remains to be seen whether it will eventually supplant the regular colonoscopy. Once a cutting-edge development in its own right, the work of Dr. Wolff and Dr. Shinya is now a standard for gastroenterologists and surgeons.