In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University (USA), Imec’s iLab is a disposable diagnostic chip the size of a USB stick. Eventually, this instrument-on-chip should be able to analyze a drop of blood to screen for disease-related parameters. Much of the research in healthcare is directed at the major medical challenges of the coming decade. How are we going to cope with the diseases of a growing elderly population, such as brain diseases, cancers, and diabetes? How can we improve both the quality and length of human lives? And how can we bring that high-quality care to everyone on this planet? With silicon process technology, we now have the ability to design and fabricate breakthrough miniaturized tools and instruments. Tools that will enable a better healthcare diagnosis and treatment for everyone.

We Need Better Tests, and Many More of Them
The key theme to many advances in today’s healthcare research is highly individualized diagnosis and treatment. Not only will we need new tests that are more sensitive than anything we have today. We’ll also need to make testing so fast and cheap that we can test and treat all patients whenever there is a need. And this without overstretching the already heavily challenged healthcare budgets.

Here is a chance and a challenge for silicon process technology.

The past decades, we have mass-produced complex chips at ever greater performance for ever lower cost. And while we were doing that, we have also learned how to make silicon work with light, how to make silicon surfaces biocompatible, or how to do micromachining and microfluidics. All using the same cost-efficient manufacturing processes.

Today, we can scale silicon components to the same scale as cells and biomolecules. So we’re reaching out, building an interface between silicon chips and biology. The results we obtain in the labs are picked up by companies and are already integrated in the first commercial products – DNA sequencing machines, miniaturized diagnostic tests using disposable photonic chips, accurate body monitoring sensors, brain stimulation probes, and more.

The young engineers and researchers who graduate today from our universities have been educated in that multidisciplinary mindset. They understand silicon and process technology and know how it might be applied in healthcare. They have no difficulties making the bridge between the medical world and that of nano-engineering.

But that is not always the case with more senior professionals or researchers. Professionals in the healthcare sector may not be aware of the power of the tools that are just beyond the horizon. And likewise, engineers that have been busy shaping silicon technology may not be aware of the possible applications and challenges in adapting the technology for healthcare applications.

To help overcome this, imec academy has set up a course titled “Nanotech for Health.” The goal is to update all attendants with the latest advances in the cross-disciplinary field of life sciences and technology. And because the field has already become so broad, we have invited specialists to talk on three subjects that will be especially relevant in the coming years.

Stem Cell Technology and Tissue Engineering
Stem cells are undifferentiated biological cells, cells that have not yet chosen their calling. Researchers call them pluripotent, and the body uses them as a repair system, replenishing depleted and injured tissues. With the discovery of a path to trick matured human cells into becoming pluripotent again, we can now start to use them for therapies, e.g. to replace damaged tissue. The vision is that one day, we’ll be able to treat a patient with diabetes by replacing his faulty pancreas cells with new pancreas cells reprogrammed on the basis of his own stem cells.

The power of stem cells to heal and regenerate tissues will bring unseen changes to healthcare. But the practical implementation will take time. We will need many new tools to work with stem cells. Tools that morph today’s experimental, expensive lab results into high-quality daily routines in hospitals. Tools that allow e.g. to make high-quality, identical, reproducible biological implants.

One example of a tool that imec has been working on is a bioreactor for automated monitoring of stem cell culturing. We have developed a lensless microscope-on-chip that looks at the differentiation of stem cells using a CMOS imager and a light source. The microscope can be integrated in the bioreactor or incubator for online monitoring of cell growth and differentiation as part of the regenerative cell factory of the future. Or it could be used to inspect a stream of patient cells to isolate stem cells of interest. Furthermore the system could be extended with microfluidics and with molecular detection possibilities to look at cell and tissue responses.

Technologies for Implants that Interact with the Brain
Another promising field is that of in-vivo electronics that measure and interact with nerves and brain cells.

Such implants can be used therapeutically. There is, e.g. already a proven technique called “deep brain stimulation” to mitigate tremors in Parkinson’s patients. The ultimate goal here is to have a technology that can be used to improve the quality of life of people with neurodegenerative diseases or e.g. spinal cord injuries. These probes will be thin, flexible and biocompatible threads with thousands of electrodes.

But another important target are probes that help us better understand what goes on in a brain. How healthy cells relay signals to the brain and react on external stimuli. And how this mechanism is distorted by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. At imec, we’ve recently closed a collaboration agreement with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (USA) to develop just such a breakthrough probe. The idea is to measure the activity of brain cells of living animals, using a silicon-based probe with more integrated electrodes and signal processing than was possible until now. This probe will allow to chart brain activity with an unprecedented detail.

Powerful Diagnostics at the Point-of-Care
With today’s technology, we can uncover a single nucleotide that has changed in a human genome, detect and count cells and viruses, visualize the 3D-structure of proteins, and more, but all in research labs with expensive tools and specialized personnel. To bring this level of testing to the point-of-care, the physician or even the patient’s home, we need a new generation of strongly miniaturized tools.

Imec’s iLab concept is an example. In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University (USA), we’re developing a disposable diagnostic chip the size of a USB stick. Eventually, this instrument-on-chip should be able to analyze a drop of blood to screen for disease-related parameters. It should yield results in 10 minutes and cost less than 10 euro. Such a lab-on-a-chip will be chock-full with biochemical, mechanical, optical, and electrical sensoring equipment, all miniaturized in silicon technology.

Not only the diagnostic tools will change, but also the settings and use cases in which diagnosis will take place. Which is why we also need to prepare the professionals for what is coming.

Nanotech for Health – What We Offer and Who Should Attend?
The course “Nanotech for Health” takes place September 22-25 at imec (Leuven). We target Ph.D. students and young scientists from different fields, to learn what is going on in fields and domains outside their own private specialization. The course is also useful for professionals and researchers active in either silicon technology or healthcare technology to allow them a broad and deep view on a rapidly evolving field.

The lecturing team consists of top experts in the field, both from imec, academia and industry. The course is both broad and technical. As a preparation, imec academy has organized two introductory series ‘Basics of biology for Engineers’ and ‘Basics of Photonics and Electronics for Life Scientists’. Recorded archives of both courses are available from imec academy.