Peter Peumans, Senior Vice President life science technologies at imec
Over the years, we have become completely familiar with people who have had a pacemaker implanted. Yet when you think about it, this is definitely a ‘little piece of electronics’ in our body. And there’s more in the way of ‘body electronics’ in the pipeline, too. For example, it will become entirely normal to connect chips with our nervous system for the treatment of arthritis, chronic pain, Parkinson’s or epilepsy. Clinical studies are already underway to test these applications. In-built chips could also offer a solution for diseases such as diabetes: if we know what’s going wrong in the pancreas, we can then use electrodes to manage the problem and perhaps help reverse for what’s going wrong. Treating diabetes in this way will become just as commonplace in the future as a pacemaker is now for heart patients.
Imec is currently working on chips and electrodes that enable us to provide very precise stimulation and readouts of nerve cells. This interaction between chips and nerves is essential for understanding and treating certain diseases. It’s also important for controlling and operating prostheses better. Imec gained extensive coverage in the media in 2017 with a chip that controls prostheses with greater precision and that even gives users a sense of feeling. For example, the chip sends very detailed feedback from the nerve cells to the motorizing elements in an artificial arm, so that the arm can be controlled more intuitively. In the same way, feedback is sent from the prosthesis to the brain, which gives the user a ‘sensory experience’.
The chip was developed as part of the University of Florida’s IMPRESS (Implantable Multimodal Peripheral Recording and Stimulation System) project, which itself is part of DARPA’s HAPTIX program that aims to develop the next generation of haptic prostheses.
Implantable microchip that enables prostheses to provide wearers with a sensory experience
Growing organs on a chip
You don’t always need to use chips and electrodes in the body to create interesting applications. They can also be used in-vitro, for example to grow body tissue and organs. We have created a chip with a high-density and high-resolution array of electrodes to interface with cell cultures and tissue, including human cells such as human induced pluripotent stem cells.
The chip allows for characterization, the cells that develop can then be read-out and stimulated with single-cell precision. The chip can also be used for extremely precise ‘electroporation’ process, right down to a single cell. If a current is passed through the cell – via an electrode – the cell membrane opens momentarily, enabling genetic material to be inserted into the cell so that the (stem)cell can change, for example to an epidermal cell, dermal cell or sebaceous cell. Over time, we hope to be able to construct 3D tissues. Imec is particularly good at producing these extremely small electrodes, as well as – and above all – at integrating all of the components (electrodes, microfluidics, etc.) to create a single, compact and effective unit.
Fast DNA analysis for diagnoses
Next to the growing importance of ‘electroceuticals’ – this is how we call these sorts of chips that interact with the body – we are seeing a second trend in medicine: the growing importance of DNA sequencing. Whereas previously very large machines were used that could scan hundreds of samples in parallel, we are now evolving towards smaller devices capable of scanning smaller numbers of samples, but much more quickly. And to do that, chips, photonics and integration are very important. In 2012, imec began its first collaborative DNA sequencing project, with Pacific Biosciences. Today, there are five partners involved who all believe in the power of chips and integration for the next generation of sequencing devices.
Having a short scanning time is essential if we intend applying DNA sequencing on a daily basis, such as for diagnosing certain diseases. For example, the American start-up Grail aims to use DNA analysis for detecting cancer at an early stage from a blood sample. Last year, the company raised almost a billion dollars to take its product to market.
And as soon as we succeed in scanning DNA quickly and accurately, it’ll be the turn of proteins.
Over time, analysis tools will be developed that are capable of carrying out a full analysis of the blood to identify proteins and pinpoint particular patterns. First and foremost this will be an important tool that will enable researchers to gain more insight into diseases and to identify new biomarkers for those diseases. The next step will then be to use these biomarkers so that diseases such as Alzheimer’s can be detected more quickly.
Imec develops technology for analyzing blood samples more rapidly, compactly and accurately. Which is why we set up miDiagnostics in 2015, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University.
This start-up will bring a device to market that is capable, in just a few minutes and using just one drop of blood, of carrying out a CBC (complete blood count) test. This is the blood test used most frequently in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals. It tests 12 parameters in the blood, for example related to infections and the patient’s general state of health. It currently takes 2 days to get the results back from this test, which has to be carried out in a central laboratory. With the miDiagnostics technology, it will be possible to do the CBC test at home or at the doctor’s office, with immediate results. It will also inform the doctor whether you are likely to have a bacterial or viral infection or if you are ready for your next round of chemo, etc. 2018 will be an important year for miDiagnostics as it refines the technology. And we have another start-up in groundbreaking diagnostics in the pipeline.
Working with our partners, we are building a future with new diagnostics products – with chips playing the lead role – that will make our lives and the lives of doctors a whole lot simpler!
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Peter Peumans obtained a PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton University, and a bachelor’s and master’s degree from KU Leuven. As a graduate student, he was awarded an honorary fellowship by The Belgian American Educational Foundation and a Gordon Wu fellowship by Princeton University in 1998. During his PhD, Peter developed several efficient solar cell device architectures, contributed to the current understanding of the mechanisms present in organic solar cells, and published highly cited work on organic photovoltaic cells - which includes a Nature paper in 2003. Upon completion of his doctoral research, Peter joined the Electrical Engineering department at Stanford University in 2004 as Assistant Professor, where his work focused on large-area electronics, solar energy conversion and biomedical electronics. The following year, Peter was the recipient of The National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a highly prestigious award for early-career researchers. In 2011, Peter joined imec and became chief strategist of all its life science activities. His works centers on making use of mass-manufacturable nanotechnology platforms, developed by the semiconductor industry, to enable next-generation blood tests, DNA sequencing solutions, drug discovery tools, health monitoring devices, and other life sciences-related applications. Peter has worked on projects with NASA and DARPA, holds over 40 US patents, and is CTO of miDiagnostics, a joint imec-Johns Hopkins University spin-off company.