Biotech a healthy market for chips

Intel is looking hard at the emerging market of biotech devices.

Dr Mark Blatt, Intel’s manager of healthcare strategies, lifted the lid off a new brew for the chip maker when he attended a healthcare informatics conference in Australia recently. An energetic Blatt tossed around ideas such as a diagnostic lab on a chip, toxin-detecting and analysis-capable bandaids, and ulcer-detecting stockings for diabetics.

“I think that doctors, nurses and hospitals will become increasingly less important in coming years. We might be talking tens of years away, but it is quite possible we will be looking at constructing haemoglobin molecules that can carry 10 times as much oxygen as now, and that can be injected into patients who are at risk of heart disease,” he said.

“Couple that with a personalised detection mechanism that shows the heart is suffering failure by monitoring blood flow and pressure in the aorta, and it’s possible for your phone to ring and say 'your heart is about to stop – get to hospital quick; you have 20 minutes' thanks to the extra oxygen in your blood keeping you alive,” he said.

Blatt was expanding on Intel’s new push into the BioInformatics arena, which is to concentrate on both the improvement of existing IT services throughout the healthcare industry, and the development of new technologies within the device market.

Working in close conjunction with University of Rochester school of bioengineering and MIT media labs, Intel is helping to develop devices that allow real-time monitoring of patient condition using nanotech chips and sensing technology.

“We are working on things like sensors that are small and sensitive enough to be incorporated in bandaids to detect toxins and change colour if they do. Other practical applications might include chips that can be incorporated in packaged food -- such as inside the cap of a bottle of milk – to give a visual indication of the freshness or the presence of harmful pathogens.

“All these things are possible within 10 or 15 years,” he said.

The researchers were also busy looking at the application of computer feedback systems to the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. The systems currently being investigated use body and position sensors to analyse long-term behaviour changes, such as those present during the early stages of the disease.

“Computer-based systems will be able to use cameras and radio-frequency wireless sensors on the patient’s body to analyse common tasks – such as how long does it take to dress, make a cup of tea, wash hands – and compare that to a set of previous data,” he said.

Blatt said this approach was much more likely to pick up the onset of the disease, as a relative would not notice minute changes until the progression had considerably advanced, and treatment was less effective. “And the same applies to the patients’ response to the use of therapeutics – the system would be able to detect minute improvements too.”

Although convinced that machines and digital sensors would take over (and be more effective) than doctors and nurses, Blatt predicted there would always be a place for the human touch.

“What it means is that this technology will enable doctors to go back to what they did best 100 years ago – caring for people, hugging them and offering compassion,” he said. “Not just dispensing technology like they do today. They will be the empathetic part of the caring profession.”

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