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Electronics meets medicine – New tools for the patient and medical researcher

Imec is a world-leading research centre in nanoelectronics. Since our founding in 1984 we believe in the power of collaboration. Collaboration within the domain of electronics, but also between different domains such as electronics and medicine. We, together with our healthcare partners share a vision on how people will follow up on their health in the future.

People will wear body sensors that measure their condition and empower them to live a healthier life. If they feel sick, they can visit the pharmacist (2) or doctor to get very easy, fast and accurate tests (so-called lab-on-chips). This will replace to a large extent the tests done in clinical labs. These miniaturized tests will be a revolution too for developing countries where clinical labs are not available so widely and physicians have to work in rural areas far from cities and hospitals.

And also for medical researchers this ‘electronics meets medicine’ revolution will be important. It will give them wearable and cheaper measuring instruments that can measure e.g. heart conditions or brain waves in an accurate and patient-friendly way. It will give them tools to look into DNA, proteins, and even cells at very high speeds and throughputs, with an unparalleled precision.

Imec is a research centre and does not produce any products. The companies that we work with, can use the technologies in their products and put it onto the market.

These are a number of projects that we are working on:

Smart petri dishes: These petri dishes (1) have a bottom with thousands of integrated micro-electrodes on which cells and tissues can be grown. This allows monitoring individual cells over a long period. A possible application is real-time and label-free measuring of the toxicity of medicines on tissues. Such tests closely resemble in-vivo tests.

Lab-on-chips: These are disposable chips (3) that can do tests such as done in medical labs. A doctor can use it to detect disease markers in a fast way and with great sensitivity, at the patient’s side. A lab-on-chip system includes microfluidic channels, miniaturized pumps, biosensors and even microscopes. For the latter, imec used its expertise in imaging and advanced processing to make a lensfree microscope that fits into a lab-on-chip.

Smart and small brain implants: We also develop advanced brain probes (4)  that are more compact and intelligent (through the use of more active electrodes and integrated electronics) than existing systems. Such probes allow measuring the electrical activity of individual brain cells. They are developed and used for brain research, but may one day also contribute to therapies.

A fit sensor: Thanks to the advances in electronics it is possible to make smart heart monitoring systems that are comfortable to wear and to use and are accurate. For example, imec and Holst Centre developed a chip for the detection of ventricular fibrillation – a condition of the heart in which there is uncoordinated contraction of the cardiac muscle of the ventricles.
Based on the same platform, a fit sensor (5) was developed to monitor one’s daily activities. It includes an accelerometer and a heart rate sensor, and learning algorithms that continuously and automatically assess someone’s personal fitness level. This run-time fitness-level estimate is then used to increase the accuracy of the energy expenditure measurement. The energy expenditure measurement tool is implemented in a comfortable health patch that sends its signals to an iPhone via Bluetooth Low Energy

Detecting epilepsy: Imec and Holst Centre are developing a
prototype of a headset (6) that can measure brain signals (EEG). It transfers the data wirelessly to a computer. The device can e.g. be used by doctors to diagnose epilepsy. It is much more comfortable for the patients to wear as compared to current wired devices.

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