Faster, lighter, more durable and, ultimately, also much cheaper: the advantages of photonic circuits are considerable, for a wide range of applications. And the Netherlands plays an important role, globally, in the development and application of this key technology. In recent years, under the leadership of PhotonDeltaa solid foundation has been laid within the framework of the Dutch integrated photonics ecosystem. One of the important application areas for this key technology is in healthcare. Read the other parts of the series here.
Good health is essential for man. In recent years, we have made great strides in the field of innovative healthcare solutions. One of the most decisive technologies in this regard in the coming years is integrated photonics. This technology uses light particles (photons) to process and transmit information. Sending and receiving data using photons leads to cheaper, better and faster equipment.
What is Integrated Photonics?
Photonics is similar to electronics. However, instead of electrons, it uses photons (light) to transmit information. Photonic technology detects, generates, transports and processes light. Current applications include solar cells, sensors and fiber optic networks. Photonic chips, officially called Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs), integrate various photonic and often electronic functions into a microchip to create smaller, faster, and more power-efficient devices. Because they’re fabricated like traditional chips (with wafer-scale technology), mass production is also within reach – with consequent lower prices. More here.
Photonics can make healthcare more accessible, for example, because patients no longer need to travel to the hospital for non-acute examinations, but can do so themselves, at home. Photonics can also weld and cut with a laser beam and can help measure blood saturation, scan a suspicious birthmark or take an image of the heart. Apart from that, it is simply cheaper for society to detect and prevent disease early.
Several Dutch start-ups are exploring these opportunities. For example, some build an optical biosensor, a platform on which sensors can be used. Photonic chips should make a difference here. These PICs integrate various photonic and electronic functions into a microchip to create smaller, faster, and more power-efficient devices that can benefit the healthcare industry.
Maarten Buijs, CEO of Surfix diagnosis, manufactures a photonic biosensor for, among other things, the early detection of bladder cancer in urine. “We were a research and development company and we are now positioning ourselves as a company that commercializes biosensors. Our company would not exist without integrated photonics. We apply highly targeted bioreceptors to the light conductor of optical chips. Bioreceptors that detect cancer.
Surfix Diagnostics is in full development to commercialize the product. “In a few years, he may be there. Thanks to this product, a patient’s life will become easier. With a drop of urine on the sensor, the patient will see a result within an hour. You no longer need to go to the hospital; the general practitioner can already give a definitive answer. It is also easier to follow the evolution of the disease and to adjust the treatment accordingly. Photonics makes the “point of care” possible: at the patient’s bedside, in a hospital, in an ambulance, in the general practitioner’s office or even at the patient’s home. You can do it quickly and it pays off.
Buijs sees great opportunities for integrated photonics, if only because the production process for photonic chips is derived from that of the semiconductor industry. “The Netherlands is very strong in both areas due to its unique knowledge position. The increased miniaturization of chips ensures that each wafer or wafer – the production unit – can produce more and more chips. This makes them much cheaper and thus increases the application possibilities.
NWT also develops biosensors for health. Peter Harmsma has been involved in it for years. He is also a part-time Director of Product Development at delta diagnosis, a start-up from TNO. “At TNO, we are doing an application for the irradiation of cancer with protons. You want to make sure that the protons only affect the tumor and not the healthy tissue around it. The radiation creates an acoustic shock wave that you can detect with a photonic sensor. This allows you to more accurately determine whether the radiation is effective and therefore target the radiation more precisely and deliver less radiation.
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Harmsma and his fellow researchers had quite a few challenges for their optical biosensors. “The fiber on the chip must be applied with micrometric precision because the light must arrive at exactly the right place. This makes it very expensive and would put the service point out of reach. That’s why we changed our research focus in the meantime. We’re not just developing the optical chip itself, but primarily working on a device where you can place those chips and quickly read the results. Delta Diagnostics was founded to further develop this application. For now, the device is still the size of a shoebox, for life science applications. The goal is to eventually transform this shoebox into a matchbox for the point of service. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight. “We will need at least ten more years before this application is there for commercial use.”
AT Enzyre in Nijmegen, researchers are developing a device that examines coagulation factor VIII in the blood. Director Waander van Heerde headed the special coagulation laboratory of Radboudumc for 17 years. In 2016 he and Guido Maertens founded Enzyre. In addition to his work for Enzyre, Van Heerde still works two days a week at Radboudumc. “Our technology platform will first be used for hemophilia patients. These people lack factor VIII in their blood, which means they are at high risk of bleeding. This can be very well treated with injections with which the patients themselves bring the amount of factor VIII to the right level. Thanks to our device, each patient can measure the extent of the factor VIII deficiency at home. With an additional injection, these patients can then quickly adjust it on their own, thereby stopping the bleeding.
Enzyre’s app works by measuring the number of photons in the blood. Until now, this was done via a sensor that ran on traditional chips. Van Heerde: “In the future, you can also do this with photonic sensors, which will make it cheaper and faster. Then we will also need less blood for research. Van Heerde foresees a great future for photonics in the medical sector. “Health care must become cheaper. This is possible with integrated photonics because optical chips are faster, consume less power and thus become more efficient. Thanks to photonics, the laboratory is no longer a hospital; we brought him to the patient’s living room.