Material gains
Medical Micro-Technologies Could Mean Better Healthcare for All
Why PCB substrates are well-suited to lab-on-a-chip applications.
The semiconductor industry has pursued Moore’s Law for more than 50 years. Some now say it is dead: Progress has certainly become increasingly difficult in recent generations. On the other hand, chip design is only at the beginning of some very exciting avenues, two of which could revolutionize digital healthcare.

We know the world must deal with aging populations. Diabetes rates are increasing, particularly in North America, Europe and parts of Asia. As our transport networks shrink the globe, travelers can pick up viruses or diseases almost anywhere and present to their local practitioner, who likely has little or no experience of the exotic strain they are carrying. Our doctors are only human; we cannot expect them to know all the symptoms of all the ailments in the world and diagnose the right treatment in time, every time.

All the while, the global population continues to grow and further squeeze healthcare resources. Seeing a doctor is increasingly difficult, and practitioners’ time is increasingly precious and expensive.

The world is looking toward technology to help overcome these challenges. New Lab on a Chip (LOAC) and Organ on a Chip (OOAC) devices offer promising solutions. An LOAC can perform several laboratory procedures, such as testing blood or other samples on the spot, extremely quickly. These devices, known as BioMEMS (biomedical microelectromechanical systems) leverage advancements in technologies such as microfluidics to handle tiny quantities of blood samples or other biological fluids, as well as miniaturized electronic actuators and components for sensing and measuring.

The market for biochip products is expected to more than triple from $4.7 billion in 2015 to $18.4 billion in 2020, according to BCC Research. Many of us have already experienced LOAC devices in desktop machines such as blood-cholesterol testers, which enable general practitioners to carry out basic tests using minimally invasive methods and provide results within a few minutes while we wait. We can all appreciate the speed and relative lack of pain these devices now enable.

To help diagnose more complex or serious conditions, OOAC devices make it possible to simulate an organ such as a heart or kidney that is DNA-matched to an individual patient and applied to the tissue quickly and harmlessly. Multiple different tests can be done in parallel if needed, to avoid time-consuming test-wait-retest sequences and thus ensure much faster time to diagnosis, capturing results tailored to the individual patient. In this way, OOAC devices can help identify the treatment required and get the dosage right more quickly than traditional approaches.

As these technologies mature, we can expect basic diagnostic tests to move from healthcare professionals’ desktops into the homes of individual patients. Many will involve single-use electronic devices. Multiple millions of units will be needed, creating a tremendous opportunity and a great responsibility for electronics designers and manufacturers. There will be large demand for bio-compatible substrates, both flexible and rigid types, to carry OOAC or LOAC devices, or for use as patches such as the flexible, disposable glucose-quantification patches being developed as part of the CHIRP program at the UK’s Bath University. CHIRP’s goal is to enable cost-effective and child-friendly early diabetes screening and is aiming to create – among other innovations – a flexible printed circuit platform for the microfluidic/glucose sensor. Bio-compatibility must be addressed. Copper, which is generally used in PCB conductors, is a broad-spectrum biocide, and it is necessary to apply a gold or silver plating to make it suitable to be used in Bio-MEMS. The low reactivity of PCB substrates renders them generally bio-neutral and thus well-suited to LOAC and OOAC applications. Ventec’s product specialists work with customers on an individual basis to provide robust assurances on bio-compatibility.

More evidence of our use of technology to overcome healthcare challenges comes with the arrival of powerful medically trained AIs. These can answer the need for a fast and accurate first call to diagnose illnesses based on their observed symptoms. In the same way AIs are beating human champions at games like chess and Go, they have now begun to outscore human experts at diagnosing illnesses based on user-described symptoms. Babylon and Isabel are examples of services available now. These could increase the quality of healthcare, dramatically reduce wait times, and provide access for large numbers of people in areas of the world where healthcare has historically been prohibitively expensive or logistically difficult to reach. These emerging AI doctors can access all the world’s databases of diseases and quickly analyze biomarkers that may be unfamiliar to human doctors and therefore demand time-consuming research to categorize.

All these innovations will be aided and abetted by other technologies, such as our smartphones, the default gateway for many personal medical devices, and, of course, 5G networks with their support for massive machine-type communications to aggregate the vast quantities of medical data – both personal and anonymized – into the cloud. With these tools, we will also be able to map the progression of diseases and epidemics to improve our understanding and develop more effective responses.

Clearly there will be resistance to some of the coming changes, possibly from medical professionals who may be unhappy about the career implications for doctors or the prospects for treating patients based on third-party diagnoses. On the other hand, the AIs driving Babylon and Isabel have been built by engineers that expect them to work with human medical experts as part of the service-delivery team, instead of replacing them.

There will also be questions as to what type of information – such as genetic predispositions – should be made available to organizations such as insurers. Answering them could involve more people and more time than the technical challenges researchers and designers now grapple with. If we can find solutions to the ethical issues, these technologies have the potential to provide better healthcare for more people, at an affordable price. And that has to be good for all of us.

Alun Morgan
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.