High tech with a sensitive skin
In tomorrow’s healthcare system, people’s wellbeing and ability to perform will be at the center of attention, yet at the same time medical treatment must remain financially affordable. How else will our society be able to cope with its ageing population? Comprehensive diagnosis will help to detect diseases or predispositions even before the patient becomes aware of any symptoms. Medical implants will be used to uphold bodily functions, monitor individual risks or facilitate long-term therapies. Similar systems can be used for quality assurance. This is important, as people want to be sure that any food, drugs and cosmetics they buy have been produced safely and tested for their quality.
In many cases, the underlying technology for such systems is based on biofunctional surfaces, where the ‘skin’ of a material, instrument or device performs a function in contact with a biological environment. It picks out certain molecules, receives signals or stimulates a response. Biofunctionality is thus far more than just compatibility – the surface actually communicates.
Microsystems for diagnosis and therapy
An interdisciplinary alliance of Fraunhofer Institutes has taken up the challenge. The life sciences are delivering new measurement principles. Materials research and microelectronics are enabling biological and technical systems to be combined, and sophisticated production technology is ensuring that the systems are manufactured reliably and cost-efficiently.
There are many possible applications: a stent which, just like the arterial wall, is lined with an endothelial layer instead of clogging uncontrollably; a bioreactor whose inner skin measures the concentration of biomolecules without needing to be opened at the risk of contamination; or membranes, for instance in filters, which prevent themselves from becoming overgrown by bacteria. The market for such developments is huge. In 2007, the turnover achieved by industry with diagnostic systems amounted to over two billion euros in Germany alone.