Small Wonders

31 August 2006 (Last Updated August 31st, 2006 18:30)

Overwhelmingly popular with consumers, micro- and nanotechnologies are making waves in the medical devices industry. Dr Uwe Kleinkes outlines some of the more significant recent developments.

Small Wonders
The Elliptec actuator is noiseless and precise.

The i-Pod Nano reflects the current hype about micro- and nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology entails innovative product features and is often implemented in public funding programmes.

Skyrocketing costs for medical treatment, an ageing society and the trend for wellbeing pave the way for cheap and mobile devices for diagnosis at the point of care. Small, ready-to-use and low-cost labs the size of a credit card are replacing traditional, slow and upscale methods in external laboratories.

Nexus market analysis forecasts a worldwide rise for micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and microsystems from $12bn in 2004 to $25bn in 2009. The share of the market for medical and life sciences was only 5% in 2004, increasing to 6% in 2009 – but the leverage effect of a micropart, such as a sensor, can be tremendous.

Car safety systems rely on microsystems with an acceleration sensor for the airbag and a yaw-rate sensor for the electronic stability system. The automotive example is interesting for medical device manufacturers since microsystems like the airbag have proven their suitability in real industrial applications.

Spin-off products from the automotive market have been brought to consumer electronics, another fast growing market with microsystems. The advantage is that development costs have already been paid partially by the automotive industry, whereas the micro parts such as sensors can be adapted to mobile phones for free fall detection or navigation systems.

SME SEARCH FOR PARTNERS

Micro- and nanotechnologies can deliver reliable devices at low costs – disposable plastic devices, for example. Development takes time, but medical companies are accustomed to this. Small and medium-sized companies often supply only parts of a device, enabling larger companies to manufacture the complete systems.

The small and innovative companies search for partners like IVAM Microtechnology Network, which organises meeting points for both parties. IVAM and its more than 180 members have been involved in micro- and nanotechnologies for more than ten years. IVAM provides information about the latest trends and product developments, providing orientation about applications already available on the market.

IVAM recently conducted an investigation among its members, concluding that medical applications are one of the top markets for micro- and nanotechnology companies. The medical market is often not as cost sensitive as automotive or even consumer electronics and with niche applications one can reach reasonable prices with lower quantities.

The French company Steec makes microstructures with a laser for ear implants or stents. The microcomponents made of metal are cut or welded.

Precise, small components do not have to be nano to be useful. Some stents have a diameter of 200 microns. An even smaller structure, manufactured by UK company Tecan through electroforming, has a micro-sieve for filtering blood particles.

The mother material of microsystems is silicon – in 2003 Bosch announced silicon was to be used for lab-on-a-chip systems. Though there are many silicon applications, plastics still dominate in disposables and other devices.

BENEFITS FOR SMALL HOSPITALS

The US company Nanogen claims that its point-of-care diagnostics division has developed a rapid quantitative test for the peptide NT-proBNP as an aid in the diagnosis of congestive heart failure (CHF). The FDA has cleared this product in the USA and claims ‘CE’ self-declaration in the EU is pending.

"Precise, small components do not have to be nano to be useful."

This could help smaller hospitals to analyse probes quickly without sending them to external labs. Drive and motion devices have also been miniaturised. Elliptec AG manufactures a small, noiseless and precise low-cost motor for positioning tasks. A new energy-efficient dosing system has been developed with the German Institute HSG-IMIT.

The miniaturisation trend has also seen nanostructures and nano-medical devices, such as imaging and the treatment of tumours with nanoparticles sensitive to magnetic fields. Advanced materials and nanoparticles can support or prevent the growth of biological material on implants.

Channels in microdevices are often 50 micrometres, as thick as a hair. Below 100 nanometres, different physical effects apply to those in the macro world. These can be exploited for new concepts for functional surfaces on implants or drug delivery systems with nano capsules delivering drugs to the point of medication.

Professor Dr Dietrich Grönemeyer, an expert in minimally invasive surgery, considers the advantage of microtherapy to be more outpatients and less expensive treatment. Miniaturised medical tools, such as endoscopes and advanced imaging systems, are used in this field.

MONITORING PATIENTS WIRELESSLY

Besides single devices, complex telemetric systems help to monitor patients wirelessly. One example is an implantable pressure sensor that measures the brain pressure of hydrocephalus patients. This way, even very young patients can be monitored at home. Campus Micro Technologies GmbH will present the system at the next Compamed/Medica trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The development of new materials is advancing micro- and nano-structuring technologies and the ability to manufacture even complex systems precisely for a reasonable price. Experts from different disciplines work together to create the final product, but these experts are not always easy to find. In response, IVAM has published the MEMS Directory, an overview of companies and institutes working in the field of micro- and nanotechnology.

Generally the new devices with micro- and nanotechnology are superior to established products in performance and/or costs. Innovative technologies are not accepted on the market just because they are new. The medical industry is conservative for good reason – nobody should be at risk due to technological experiments.

Sooner or later, competitors from the Asian market will advance their technological skills and put, for example, their labs-on-a-chip on the market. The question is whether European manufacturers can compete and introduce new technologies with better or equal performances.