Why Tiny Electronics Are Having a Huge Impact on Medical Technology

Posted in Electronic Components by Brian Buntz on October 31, 2013

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are already used for an array of applications in medical devices, many of them related to sensing, diagnostics, micro-fluidics and drug delivery. This is just scratching the surface of what is possible. Potential breakthroughs on the horizon include the use of silicon microneedles, which could be used to treat diabetes and implantable MEMS sensors that could track everything from cardiac function to cranial pressure.

Chris Folk
Chris Folk will be speaking on MEMS and NEMS breakthroughs at  BIOMEDevice San Jose.

Further down the road, the applications of the technology in medicine is poised to expand further as the size of systems shrinks to the nanorealm. Nanosized devices could mimic natural biological processes and specifically target, say, cancer cells. Nanotech based systems could be used to predict a heart attack before it happens or detect the earliest stages of cancer. Last year, an article on the former idea was published in Science Translational Medicine.

To learn more about this subject, MPMN reached out to Chris Folk, who is principal engineer, device strategy at Amgen. Folk will be speaking on the subject in the BIOMEDevice San Jose conference, which is scheduled for December 5.

MPMN: Over the years, I’ve seen several announcements from universities on MEMS and NEMS breakthroughs that could assist in the development of new diagnostic devices and implantable microdevices. Which MEMS and NEMS technologies with potential medical applications are you the most excited about and why?

Folk: For implantable technologies, Second Sight, Replenish, MicroCHIPS, and CardioMEMS are leading candidates for trailblazers, with very different therapeutic areas. Second Sight is restoring vision to the blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. Replenish has an implantable drug-delivery technology to directly target therapeutics to the eye. MicroCHIPS has biosensor, wireless, and drug-delivery technologies. CardioMEMS is struggling with the Champion trial, but the safety of the technology has been supported by the FDA.

More broadly, the marriage of MEMS/NEMS and cell phones is causing an explosion of mobile-health and digital-self technologies. Curative technologies like the four I've cited tend to have the biggest "wow factor," but the predictive/preventative solutions developed in mobile health may lead to the greatest savings in healthcare and improvement of quality of life.

CardioMEMS is among the trailblazers in the field of using MEMS technology to integrate devices and health IT. They were a 2012 Intel Innovation Award Finalist.

MPMN: I’ve heard about nanotechnology research that could one day predict heart attacks before they occur or predict the earliest stages of cancer. Are you familiar with such predictions?

Folk: Yes, these refer to nanotech applied to microRNA profiling, On the MEMS side, lab-on-a chip technologies are intended for real time assaying. We'll look at these technologies in my talk.

MPMN: Could you provide some examples of promising cutting-edge nanotechnology-related applications that are more therapeutic (perhaps related to drug delivery) than diagnostic?

Folk: Drug companies are actively investigating nanotech therapies, including polymer micelles or dendritic technology for drug delivery, or gold nanoparticles to heat and destroy tumors.

MPMN: There has been a lot of excitement surrounding the field of nanotechnology but some fears about it as well. What kind of regulatory challenges do you envision nanotech-enabled devices encountering and what advice would you give on how to minimize potential safety problems when working with groundbreaking nanotechnology in medicine?

Folk: This is a big question! In general, the problem with small particles is knowing where they go, understanding their impact to the various organs they come in contact with, and learning if/how to track them in clinical trials. Cytotoxicity, renal clearance, enhanced permeability and retention (EPR) effect, and reticuloendothelial system (RES) recognition must all be understood.

MPMN: According to the outline of your talk, you will touch on the challenges of integrating MEMSs and NEMs into medical devices. Could you summarize some of those challenges and your advice for how to overcome them?

Folk: There are several topics to cover here. In my opinion, many MEMS and NEMS researchers have little experience in traditional medical device development. Thus, they try to apply the nano/MEMS "hammer" to every product requirement "nail." A large opportunity is to focus the technology on one critical task.

Packaging challenges are pervasive in the field. We can expand on this area as well.


MPMN: Do you have any advice for engineers with medical device experience who are looking to land jobs at pharmaceutical companies to help with their drug-delivery technology? I've heard this is something of a trend and was curious to hear your thoughts on it.

Folk: First, be good at what you do. If you're a ME, be grounded in core principles. Understand fluidics, pumps, valves, motors, actuators, and the physics of each. If you're an EE, understand systems, sensors, power, and microcontrollers. There's a shortage of great engineers, and it's never been a better time to self-educate via MOOCs and the like, so go for it! Here's a good test: find a top-notch colleague, and have them grill you on your work for 30 minutes. You'll soon discover your strengths and weaknesses.

Second, bring something unique to the table. Perhaps you've worked on a fluidic system before. Perhaps you have a particular relevant technology strength. Highlight and demonstrate it on your resume and in interviews.

Third, have demonstrable proof of your creative potential. The drug-delivery space is evolving very rapidly, and companies are looking for engineers who will be leading development platforms far beyond today's purview. If you are stuck in line-extension or remediation land, create opportunities to flex your creative capacities.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz and Google+.