BY PETE SINGER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The semiconductor industry has delivered breakthrough innovations in computer pro- cessing power and miniaturization over the last 70 years. Could it deliver similar results in the field of healthcare? That was the question addressed by Paru Deshpande, VP Life Sciences & Imaging at imec during a talk on Monday during imec’s International Technology Forum at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco. “When we think of the societal problems that we face in the 21st century, we’d love to see that same revolution happen in healthcare. For us at imec and I think for many of you from the silicon technology side, there is a question of what role can silicon technology play in driving this revolution,” he said.
He spoke of work at imec, where research-ers have developed technologies where cells can be grown on a chip to analyze how neurons interact (see photo), chips with needles that can be used to analyze the human brain, the role chips could play in bi-directional prosthetics that would now only enable movement but also feeling, and the role of sensors, optical solu- tions and micro- fluidics. “We are 70% water and you cannot dismiss that fact when you’re thinking about healthcare solutions,” he said.
He also spoke about the need for a manufacturing platform that – like semiconductor manufacturing — can bring new technologies to the world. “There are more than 7 billion people out there. If you’re going to come up with a healthcare solution, especially one with sophisticated technology, you need to do that with a platform that can actually address the entire community of the world,” he said.
At last year’s ITF, imec announced a novel organ-on-chip platform for pharmacological studies with unprecedented signal quality. It fuses imec’s high-density multi-electrode ar- ray (MEA)-chip with a microfluidic well plate, developed in collaboration with Micronit Mi- crotechnologies, in which cells can be cultured, providing an environment that mimics human physiology. Capable of performing multiple tests in parallel, the new device aims to be a game-changer for the pharmaceutical indus- try, offering high quality data in the drug de-velopment process.
Imec’s solution packs 16,384 electrodes, distributed over 16 wells, and offers multiparametric analysis. Each of the 1,024 electrodes in a well can detect intracellular action potentials, aside from the traditional extracellular signals.
While great progress has been made, however, Deshpande cautioned that there is much more to be done. He said the work at imec and elsewhere show how far researchers can go in moving from conventional technologies to something that is working with the human body.
“I think that will go only further as we look into the future because the reality is we are a full electrical system. There’s more and more research and development being done to try and interface with that electrical system. People are looking at devices to control disorders of the brain, to control signals in the heart, but also disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, and even things like diabetes,” he said. “So perhaps it’s too optimistic to say we will go from pills to chips, but I think there is a role for silicon in this and as more research is done to understand us as an electrical system, we will see more and more opportunity for devices that actually interface with that system.”