Semiconductors that detect cancer

Pete Singer, Editor-in-Chief

As exciting as it is to watch the semiconductor industry push to sub-10nm dimensions, 450mm wafers, finFETs, 3D ICs and the like, what’s even cooler is the potential of semiconductor technology to make a real difference in medicine. I firmly believe that a mobile health revolution is in the making, where people will be able to use their smart devices to monitor their personal health through an array of body sensors.


Semiconductor and related technologies such as microfluidics will also play an increasingly important role in medical diagnostics. This was brought home to me at the recent imec International Technology Forum Press Gathering in Leuven, Belgium, where imec CEO Luc Van den hove provided an update on blood cell sorting technology that combines semiconductor technology with microfluidics, imaging and high speed data processing to detect tumorous cancer cells. Similar technologies are slated to be presented at IEDM this month as well.

Cancer spreads throughout our body through circulating tumor cells that originate from the primary tumors, and create secondary tumors. Usually those are the most fatal ones. “If we can develop a system that can detect those circulating tumor cells in a very early phase, we develop an early warning system for cancer,” Van den hove said.

Today, single cell analysis requires a lot of manual operations, sophisticated (and expensive) tools that require a lot of time to generate the results. Very often those results are not accurate enough or not sensitive enough. “What we actually need is a much more engineering type approach where we start from the clinical samples directly, and one that is much more automated. At imec, we are developing a high content, high throughput cell sorter, which is much more compact than any cell sorter ever made,” he said.

Imec has so far demonstrated all the building blocks of this technology and demonstrated proof of principle with a single channel. The next step is to build thousands of channels on a single chip. “With silicon technology, we can very easily integrate thousands of those channels on one chip and in this way, realize the enormous sensitivity that is needed in order to detect these bad tumor cells in a billion cells.


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