There are more medical devices out there than ever before, but these select few promise to potentially improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
While it remains the Emerald Isle to many people across the globe thanks to its rich tradition in agriculture, the reality is that Ireland is also now an established biopharmaceutical hub in both the development of new drugs, and in the creation of new medical devices.
Medical devices in particular have flourished here, with half of all of the world’s ventilators for acute hospitals made here, in addition to 33pc of the world’s contact lenses, according to IDA Ireland.
Away from these mainstream items, there is a solid academic base where Irish-based research is helping to create and develop devices that solve a myriad of different problems, ranging from the most common to the rarest of all.
However, it would be remiss not to include the achievements of Europe as a whole, with more than 12,200 patent applications submitted to the European Patent Office equating to 7.7pc of the total number of applications in 2016.
In fact, according to MedTech Europe, an average of 10pc of the continent’s GDP is spent on healthcare; of that figure, 7.2pc can be attributed to medtech.
So, to get a sense of what cool and amazing things are being developed in Ireland and Europe, here are just six devices that could one day change millions of people’s lives forever.
It is estimated that approximately one in 50 people will have a brain aneurysm and, if left untreated, it will continue to grow and eventually burst, bleeding into the brain tissue and often causing disability or death.
Given the seriousness of such a situation – and the lack of a treatment to prevent it – Dr Owen Clarkin and a team of researchers from Dublin City University developed something called EnduraGel.
Made up of more than 80pc water, the technology is an injectable hydrogel for the treatment of aneurysms and is injected through very fine catheters – less than 1mm in diameter – into the affected area.
With the inclusion of uniform amorphous microparticles – which have a very specific chemistry – microparticles predictably thicken the gel to allow controlled delivery of a highly biocompatible hydrogel into the aneurysm space.
This should lead to a reduction in aneurysm recurrence and improved outcomes for patients.
Those living with the central nervous system disorder called Parkinson’s disease will be familiar with a number of daily challenges, among them being ‘freezing of gait’ (FOG), a feeling whereby their feet are stuck or glued to the floor, preventing them from moving forward.
This is often triggered by cognitive factors such as distraction, anxiety or even passing through doorways or tight spaces.
NUI Galway’s medical device research centre, Cúram, has developed cueStim, a device worn across the patient’s waist that electrically stimulates a change in the body, capable of triggering an exit from FOG or preventing an event occurring.
The device is controllable through Bluetooth via a smartphone and will allow a person to get moving again.
This first-generation device resulted from NUI Galway’s involvement in the €4.7m European FP7 project, Rempark, and through Cúram’s Human Movement Laboratory.
Graphene biomaterial for heart health
Another amazing medtech breakthrough was achieved by a team of researchers at the Science Foundation Ireland-funded (SFI) AMBER Centre in Dublin, with a graphene-based biomaterial capable of regenerating diseased heart tissue.
The material – comprising both protein collagen and the ‘wonder material’ graphene – becomes an electroconductive biohybrid, which enables it to enhance cell growth and, when electrical stimulation is applied, directs cardiac cells to respond and align in the direction of the electrical impulse.
Because of the roughness of the material as a result of its graphene base, the biomaterial prevents infection by bursting the walls of bacteria, simultaneously allowing the heart cells to multiply and grow.
For those with extensive nerve damage, current repairs are limited to a region only 2cm across, but this new biomaterial could be used across an entire affected area as it may be possible to transmit electrical signals across damaged tissue.
Electronic, disposable diagnostic chip
Dr Maria Daniela Angione of Trinity College Dublin has developed an electronic chip that has, as its active layer, a molecularly engineered biopolymeric material with tailored functionalities in a multi-array setting.
The chip is integrated into a sensing platform and employed as a sensitive and disposable diagnostic tool.
The need for such a device is paramount given that there is an urgent demand for availability of rapid, portable and accurate diagnostic techniques that can be used to control epidemics, among other things.
Unlike other more expensive diagnostic kits, Angione’s disposable chip is easy to manufacture rapidly, on top of being cheap to make.
Right now, the chip is already at the clinical trials stage and, given that it has already attracted interest from world-leading pharmaceutical companies, it could be available on the market in the next three to five years.
Delphi: The brain damage detector powered by AI
The SFI-funded Irish Centre for Foetal and Neonatal Translational Research (INFANT) is one of the foremost leaders in infant care in Europe, and earlier this year received €570,000 to further develop its smart brain monitoring system.
Called Delphi, the artificial intelligence (AI) technology will help to detect the severity of brain damage as soon as possible, enabling early intervention and appropriate therapies tailored to each individual baby.
Brain injury at birth can have a devastating effect on a life, possibly leading to permanent disabilities such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy or learning difficulties. That is why early detection of neonatal brain injury can be vital to improve outcomes and reduce the impact of brain damage.
While existing techniques track a baby’s vital signs, this electrical monitoring system will analyse neonatal electrical brain patterns and combine this data with other vital sign information to provide an overall brain health index for the baby.
Prima bionic vision system
Having so far successfully restored central vision in three patients with age-related muscular degeneration, the tiny device is implanted beneath a person’s retina.
The device works in tandem with a pair of specialised glasses containing a mini camera. This captures images in the visual environment that are processed and then sent back to the glasses, where a miniaturised projector displays the processed images using near-infrared light on the Prima implant at the back of the eye under the retina.
The generated electrical impulses are then sent back to the brain via the optic nerve, thereby restoring a substantial amount of vision.