Advanced medical technologies become advanced by the application of innovation that results in more effective, less costly or otherwise arguably better outcomes (including reduced risk of complications or disease recurrence) for patients, including in some cases enabling treatment when none was previously possible. It is intrinsic to every entrepreneur that the idea he/she is pursuing accomplishes this.
Manufacturers of products on the market have an imperative to either improve upon those products or make them obsolete. This imperative is manifested in a spectrum of planned innovation from simple incremental innovations to the quantum leap of a radically new approach.
There is an enormous amount of technology development, often applicable to multiple different clinical applications, that will be realized in product markets in the future. For the moment, though, I would like to look beyond “incremental improvements” or “product line extensions” or other marginal advances that serve little more than superficially addressing shortcomings of existing products on the market. I would like to look at waves of innovation coming in the short to long term that are expected to impact medtech in ways that are increasingly “radical” or represent varying orders of magnitude of improvement in results.
Three categories spanning short, mid, and long reflect what I see in medtech development. Below, I outline the nature of each and the specific examples that are or will be emerging.
Short term. With change encompassing technologies that are just sufficiently different so that they cannot simply be called incremental innovations, some short term advances often combine two or more complementary and/or synergistic technologies in new ways to advance healthcare. Examples include:
- Image-guided surgeries to augment the surgeon’s ability to navigate complex anatomy or discern the margins of healthy versus disease tissue.
- Natural orifice endoscopic surgery (and shift in general from invasive to interventional and intraductal procedures) to either drastically reduce or eliminate the trauma of surgical access
- Non-invasive therapeutics (like lithotripsy, gamma knife, others) to treat disease without trauma to collateral tissues.
- Genome-driven treatment profiling (prescreening to determine ideal patients with high probable response).
- Personalized (custom) implants. These already exist in orthopedics, but the potential for customized implants in gastroenterology, cardiology, and many other clinical areas is wholly untapped.
- Regenerative technologies (bone, skin, other). These technologies represent introductory markets with lowered challenge compared to more complex functional anatomy (e.g., vital organs).
- Smart devices (implantable sensors, RFID-tagged implants, etc.) to provide data to clinicians on implant location and status or, in the extreme respond diagnostically or therapeutically to changes in the implant’s immediate environment.
Mid-term. These are new therapeutic options that are fundamentally different than those in current use for a given treatment option. These are technologies that have demonstrated high probability of being feasible in large scale use, but have not yet accumulated enough clinical data to warrant full regulatory approval.
- Nanotech surface technologies for biocompatibility, localized treatment delivery or other advantages at the interface between patient and product.
- Materials that adapt to changes in implant environment, to maintain pH, to release drugs, to change shape.
- Artificial heart. A vital organ replacement that currently has demonstrated the capacity to be a bridge to transplant but has also advanced sufficiently to open the possibility of permanent replacement in the not-too-distant future.
- Cell/device hybrids. These are organ replacements (e.g., kidney, lung, liver) performing routine function or natural organs, but configured in a device to address unresolved issues of long term function, immune response and others.
- Artificial organs (other than heart) — closed loop glucometer/insulin pump (artificial pancreas). These are not even partial biological representations of the natural organ, but completely synthetic “organs” that intelligently regulate and maintain a steady state (e.g., blood glucose levels) by combining the necessary functions through combined, closed-loop mechanical means (an insulin pump and glucometer with the necessary algorithms or program to independently respond to changes in order to otherwise maintain a steady state.
Long-term. Orders of magnitude, quantum shift, paradigm shift or otherwise fundamentally different means to serve clinical need.
- 3D implant printing. In a recent example, in an emergency situation a 3D implant for repair of a infant’s trachea was approved by the FDA. These implants, as in the case of the trachea repair, will most often be customized for specific patients, matching their specific anatomy and may even include their (autologous) cells. They may also be made of other materials including extracellular matrices that will stimulate natural cell migration followed eventually by bioabsorption of the original material. Depending upon type of material and complexity of the anatomy, these technologies may emerge in the near or distant future.
- Gene therapies. Given the root cause of many diseases has a genetic component or is entirely due to a genetic defect, gene therapies will be “permanent corrections” of those defects. An enormous number of hurdles remain to be crossed before gene therapies are largely realized. These deal with delivery and permanent induction of the corrected genes into patients.
- Stem cell therapies. The potential applications are many and the impact enormous of stem cell therapies, but while stem cell technology (whether for adult or embryonic) has made enormous strides, many challenges remain in solving the cascade of differentiation while avoiding the potential for aberrant development of these cells, sometimes to proliferative (cancerous) states.
- “Rational” therapeutics. Whether by stem cell therapies, gene therapies or other biochemical or biological approach, “rational” therapeutics represent the consummate target for medical technology. Such therapeutics are “rational” in the sense that they perfectly address disease states (i.e., effect cures) without complication or need for recurrent intervention.
There are certainly more holes than fabric in this tapestry of short-, mid- and long-term technology innovation, but this should serve to illustrate the correlation between the sophistication of the potential medtech solution and the level of technical challenge in order to achieve each.