Small is beautiful in the medical world

Small is beautiful in the medical world. And being able to give European industry the edge in a nearly €200 billion worldwide biomedical market is what drives a consortium of EU-backed partners to make and market smaller, cheaper and better biomedical devices and innovative new applications.

The Micro-Medics consortium was launched in 2002 to help the European biomedical community compete in the increasingly tough world market for ever-smaller, smarter and cheaper micro-technologies, components and systems. From the outset, the project partners realised their strength was going to lie somewhere between the biomedical market and the micro-technology market.

Andreas Schneider, who runs the consortium out of his office in the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT), Germany, says it is important not to underestimate the marketing aspect of this cutthroat business. “Most industries are proficient in either the biomedical market or the micro-technology market, but usually not both. We know both markets and we know how to put them together for industries,” he told IST Results.

Schneider and IBMT got together with Spain’s Centro Nacional de Microelectronica CNM to form Micro-Medics – short for ‘Access to and support for bioMEDICal MICROdevices’ – three years ago with just under €500 000 in funding from the EU’s Information Society Technologies (IST) research programme. This partnership emerged from an earlier EU initiative, called ‘Europractice’, which was the precursor to the setting up of a European Competence Centre for Biomedical Micro-devices, or Medics.

Today, the partnership also includes such prominent names as Zarlink Semiconductor, the world's largest designer and supplier of silicon chips for cardiac pacemakers, and a pan-Iberian research house i2m Design. Medics’ main focus is on active implants, micro-electronics, biomedical sensors and telemedicine. It also provides a range of services, such as contract research, workshops and training courses, feasibility studies and concept evaluation, and support in regulatory affairs, patent and market research, as well as technical due diligence.

One of Medics most recent R&D successes, reports IST Results, is an “application-specific integrated circuit designed for the world’s only swallowable camera capsule”. Apparently, the camera can be used in place of a traditional endoscope for diagnosing disorders of the small intestine, such as Crohn’s Disease and cancer.

Swallowing a mini-camera in a capsule gives doctors unprecedented shots of the inner workings of the digestive system. “Over the course of about eight to 10 hours, the capsule travels naturally through the gastrointestinal tract while transmitting two high-definition, colour images per second to a receiver worn on the patient’s belt,” the report says. “The images are then downloaded to a computer that produces a video of the camera’s journey, offering the diagnostician the opportunity to look for pathologies and diseases.”

According to the Medics team, developing, manufacturing and marketing biomedical products is a complicated process, made more difficult by the high quality standards and requirements expected of all medical products, including biomedical ones. They list just some of the complex issues to consider, such as biocompatibility, device security and legal aspects. Restructuring of public healthcare systems across Europe is also taking its toll, increasing demand for more cost-effective devices and efficient patient care, they add.

Schneider says Medics is planning an event – International Co-operation Forum on Wireless Systems for Biomedical Applications and Devices – to help raise awareness of these issues and for knowledge sharing. The forum is scheduled to take place on 26 April this year at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering in St. Ingbert, Germany.

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