Semiconductors and healthcare converging

Semiconductor technology is increasingly being implemented in a variety of healthcare applications. At the recent imec International Technology Forum Press Gathering in Leuven, Belgium, imec CEO Luc Van den hove outlined uses in blood cell sorting, mobile apps for personalized medicine (such as brain monitoring of EEG activity), and advanced bio research.

“The cost of healthcare is exploding,” he said, noting that one in three people will develop diabetes in their lifetime. It is estimated that the cost of treating diabetes patients will exceed $500 billion 20 years from now (for U.S. and Europe). “This number is larger than the entire turnover of the entire semiconductor industry today,” vVan den hove said. “The cost of treating heart diseases will be even more than triple that. These numbers are really frightening and the problem is tremendous.”

Presently, today’s healthcare system is relatively inefficient. “We are treating illnesses with generic treatments which are optimized for the average population of patients, sometimes leading to overconsumption, sometimes under consumption,” said Van den hove. “We go to the doctor when it’s too late, when symptoms occur. Often, the treatments will be more expensive. If we implement a more proactive way to perform healthcare, it would be much more effective.. It is really time for a change here. We need to implement this vision of more personalized, more preventive, predictive and participative healthcare system,” he said.

Van den hove believes the healthcare system will soon see the kind of evolution of that the semiconductor industry has witnessed. “We have created this fabulous revolution in compute power. We went from mainframe to desktop type systems to a computer in our pocket that is more powerful than a mainframe computer we were using 20 years ago. We’re convinced that we will see a similar revolution in the domain of medical diagnostics,” said Van den hove. “We are clearly at a turning point and we will go from these very sophisticated clinical labs with big medical analysis tools to tools that will be implemented on a doctor’s desk, eventually to tools we will be using in our homes which are add-ons to our smart phones, which will allow us to do part of the analysis at home. We are convinced that if you combine that capabilities of semiconductor technology with the know-how that is available in the medical profession, we can come up with solutions that are more sustainable.”

One cornerstone of such a medical system will be early diagnostics. One example is the early detection of cancer cells in blood. “Typically today, when you have a primary tumor, it will spread out tumor cells that will circulate through the blood and will create secondary tumors that are usually the more fatal ones. If we can find a way to detect those circulating those tumor cells in the blood in an easy way, then we can come up with a way to detect cancer at an early stage,” Van den hove said.

The challenge is huge: one has to have the ability to detect one bad tumor cell in 5 billion blood cells. This equate to a requirement to detect 20 million cells per second. “This is a real challenge, but the parallelism that can be realized with semiconductor technology is a tremendous opportunity. We can fabricate thousands of those parallel circuits on one device. This will allow us to create this kind of sensitivity,” he said. “The system we are building here is a combination of very sophisticated microfluidics, electronics and very sophisticated on-chip imaging. We also require a lot of compute power because we have to analyze 20 million images per second. It will become possible to realize these kinds of detection systems.”

The second pillar of a sustainable healthcare system, according to imec, is mobile diagnostics that will allow patients to be monitored in their homes and also better access to healthcare in places that are difficult to reach.

One example of such a device under development at imec is smart health patches. We’ve been working on these technologies now for several years and one of the key aspects of it today is that we are trying to measure multiple parameters with one health patch – not only heartbeat, but skin temperature, skin conductance and chemical sensing. We’ve developed several prototypes of these kinds of devices over the years, refined the prototypes and we’re now doing clinical trials, both for cardiac monitoring and monitoring of epileptic patients. We have also been developing further versions of the wireless EEG concept,” Van den hove said.

A third pillar of such a sustainable healthcare system will be personalized therapy which could lead to the discover of cures of illnesses that are now uncurable.  “It will at some time, a few years from now, be possible to cure diabetes patients by replacing their failed pancreas cells with new cells, reprogrammed based on their own stem cells,” said Van den hove. “We are developing bio-reactors in order to realize that, in which cells and tissues can be grown in a more controlled way. By realizing a two-way communication between the tissue and the cells that grow on it, we can indeed control the growth of this tissue. We’re doing that by using the multi-electrode arrays that we have developed for cell recording.”

Caption: CMOS chip with a matrix of micronails with various dimensions, packaged in a dish suitable for cell cultures. With these micronail-electrodes individual cells can be stimulated and recorded. This platform for two-way electrical communication can be an interesting instrument for research on in-vitro cell cultures (e.g. Alzheimer research; drug development).

Van den hove said one way to realize personalized diagnostics is also to tune the treatment based on, for example, information that can be obtained from DNA sequencing. “This will also be an application where we will need a lot of compute power in order to realize it. We’re working in our high performance computing program together with several partners on solutions for these applications,” he said. “Technologies that are enabled through progress in semiconductors, combined with the knowledge of the medical experts, will indeed allow us to implement a more sustainable healthcare system.”

One example of a future healthcare concept is called “Guardian Angel Devices,” a new program (in which imec is involved) that will develop technologies for extremely energy-efficient, smart, electronic personal companions that will assist humans from infancy to old age. These devices will be private and secure systems featuring sensing beyond human capabilities, computation, and communication, The angel devices will be developed using advanced semiconductor and nanotechnology, such as that shown below (captured from the video on the project’s website).  


Related articles: TEL and imec extend partnership into life science related research, EEG headset prototype developed


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