Medical Devices: New Applications for Old Innovations
By Nerac Senior Innovation Analysts
Originally Published June 19, 2017
Some of the brightest novel products across industries are originating from existing – or old inventions. Innovation does not have to be born of a zero starting block. Developing new, brilliant products can be a function of taking existing tools and re-purposing them for an entirely new use.
Examples of this are plentiful in the medical device industry. A prime example is the current work in diabetic management – the use of a contact lens to measure the blood glucose level in tears. The first concept of a contact lens is found in drawings from 1508 by Leonardo da Vinci. This was followed by the first contact lens made of glass in 1887 by F.A. Muller, a German glassblower. Without a doubt, the contact lens is an old innovation.
The original (and primary) function of the contact lens is to improve the vision of the user, be it to correct myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism. Google has taken this “old innovation” and, working with Novartis, Inc., is using the contact lens in new way. The “smart” lens is equipped with a miniature wireless chip and blood-sugar sensor embedded between layers of contact lens material. An antenna sends information to the patient’s phone or wearable computer. The lens is able to check blood sugar levels every second – monitoring in a way unequal to anything presently available. Smart, indeed.
Another therapeutic device that has been used for centuries that now has diagnostic functionality in another medical discipline is the catheter. Catheters were first used in ancient Greece around 3000 B.C. to relieve patients of urinary retention. The first catheter to be constructed and used in the U.S. was by another highly productive inventor, Benjamin Franklin, in 1752, in an attempt to relieve a relative of bladder stones. The application of this therapeutic device to cardiology came centuries after its initial use to empty the urinary tract. Cardiac catheterization developed during the twentieth century with the first right heart catheterization done by a German physician, Werner Forssmann in 1929 on himself using a urinary catheter. He believed that this instrument could be used to deliver drugs or measure cardiac pressure. The functionality of catheters thus changed from a simple drainage tube to a complex device which can now assess vascular dimensions, map electrophysiological properties to diagnose cardiac pacing issues, and perform therapeutic microsurgery such as valve replacement.
The first vacuum pump was developed by Otto von Guericke in 1650, followed by development of a piston pump by Robert Hooke (1671). The vacuum pump found its way into many applications with the growing industrial age; from the production of vacuum tubes and electric lamps to printing presses, industrial stone cutting to semiconductor processing. How does this relate to medical technology?
Reducing pressure near a wound has been found to deter tissue necrosis, increasing healing potential. Vacuum-assisted drainage to wounds, a fairly recent procedure, removes blood or serous fluid from a wound or surgical site. This has been accomplished using a bandage made of foam with an open-cell structure covered with an adhesive membrane and attached to a drain tube connected to a vacuum source. A need for an efficient, portable device based on this method has been answered by Acelity, Inc.’s Nanova Therapy System. Nanova consists of a standard dressing connected to a vacuum pump the size of a cell phone. This vacuum pump system is disposable, manually activated, lasts up to 30 days and is designed to be used outside of a clinical environment. Thus what has been widely used for industrial purposes is now successfully used in a medical application.
Developing a new product using an existing invention may lead to questions of patentability. Filing for patents in the U.S. requires the conditions of usability, novelty, that the invention is non-obvious and that it is within a category of patentable subject matter. So, if an inventor can prove that his or her invention is a new, useful and non-obvious use of a known invention, the product is patentable.
Looking back may just be the answer to the vision of the future in medical device development. Innovations in medical devices have come from recognizing a need and being open to applying existing devices and technologies from other disciplines to answer these needs. Perhaps the best development ideas will continue to come from what we already have, and looking for ways to integrate new technologies for added/novel functionality.
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