Micro machines tipped as future in medicine

A panel of health professionals and MEMS industry specialists today said that if MEMS existed when the audience was growing up, thanks to their potential applications and accuracy, perhaps they wouldn’t have hated going to the doctor’s office so much after that first visit. 

The excitable panel suggested that micro-machine medicine is en route to being very big business, but first, researchers have to find exactly the right way to approach the challenges. Neurologist Francois Berger, M.D.-Ph.D., Director, CEA Leti – Clinatec, said that first and foremost, the biomedical need for MEMS has to be identified. “We realise that we need to interface between technology and medical applications,” he said. “It is important to have early contact with technology companies to define what we need.”

Such are the potential applications of MEMS that, in Berger’s opinion, the technology could become the next major player in the pharmaceutical industry. 

An example is an insulin pump, introduced earlier in the day by Carmelo Papa at STMicroelevtronics, which is accurate to the nanolitre and can be administred remotely. Chris Baten, program manager, 3D ambulatory motion analysis, Roessingh Research and Development, said that diabetes is indicative of a global medical disaster. The pump addresses the problems with diabetes today: it is very easy to treat, but the treatment effects your quality of life. “Quality of life is exactly the limiting factor of treating it today. With that pump,” he said, “it alters the way of living”.

Besides, according to the panel, there is nothing out there which can touch the same level of safety as MEMS devices. Back to the insulin pump there are sensors in the pump which immediately detect errors and raise the alarm, along with other ways to monitor it. Couple that with the nanolitres of precision and it could be argued that the machines are failsafe. “Another area is reliability,” Berger said. “If you speak about medical devices you are speaking about life sustaining devices – in essence, you can’t afford to have the system stopping at any time.”

According to Berger, the next medical trend will be in “electronic medicine.” An example is in Parkinson’s disease. In most cases, when the disease is discovered, the pathogenic cells have already been destroyed, but, he said, with MEMS it is possible to detect the disase early by checking for very early movement disabilities, way before the cells are fully destroyed. Then, also using MEMS to monitor reactions, he would be able to detect the efficacy of the drug along with its side effects. This is important because, during early stages, he claims it is possible to stimulate the brain and have it cause a regenerative effect within the body. MEMS, along the way, “can be there from early detection through to therapy.”

“MEMS is only part of the answer,” the panel agreed. “It’s not just about what’s under the hood, but also how it interacts with the user – the user interface is extremely important. MEMS i the enabler, but to really take effect it has to have proven clinical efficacy, or it will not be introduced into the market.”

And that will bring substantial challenges. Some doctors, according to MEMS industry insiders, are reluctant to adopt new technologies because they can take revenue away from healthcare. On the other side of the fence, the “consumer” of MEMS healthcare might not, in real terms, be overly keen to trust the technologies. But the potential is astounding.