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Medical devices on fast forward

MIT center aims to spur dramatic advances in health care tools

(Photos By David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2011

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Pacemakers are smaller than they used to be, but not really that different from one that might have kept your grandfather alive decades ago. Ultrasound machines still look pretty much the same as they did when you or your children were born. Tests for strep throat still take days to come back from the lab.

While computers, phones, and even watches have been transformed at breathtaking speed, improvements to medical devices have arrived slowly and incrementally.

Now, a new center at MIT wants to bring the breakneck pace of consumer tech development to such devices, and cement the Boston region’s role in that transformation.

“Boston has a real opportunity, given the density of what we already do in the medical space,’’ said Brian W. Anthony, one of the directors of the new Medical Electronic Device Realization Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We really can be the Silicon Valley of medical devices.’’

As baby boomers age and as the struggle to contain health care costs continues, the need for improved medical technology grows, said Charles G. Sodini, an electrical engineering professor and codirector of the new center. He and his colleagues hope to spur radical change in the medical device industry, shepherding tools out of the hospital and into the doctor’s office, the wardrobe, and even under the skin. They envision clothes that can continuously monitor the wearer’s health status; implantable devices that can warn of impending problems; and diagnostic tools that are less expensive, easier to use, and more versatile than what are available now.

And there is no better place to do that than this region, according to Sodini. “We have Harvard, we have MIT, we have the hospitals, we have [businesses], we have all the pieces here,’’ he said.

The center, which officially launched last month, now hosts MIT researchers, doctors from area hospitals, and staffers from two companies: GE Global Research, headquartered in Niskayuna, N.Y., and Analog Devices Inc. of Norwood. The companies must agree to sponsor research and to assign a company employee to work on campus through the life of the project.

Among the challenges the center will address, said Patrick O’Doherty, health care group vice president at Analog Devices, are miniaturization — making the technology smaller and more portable — and improved sensing, to increase the ability to detect problems. “You need sensors that don’t interfere with your normal, everyday life,’’ he said. “We’re working on ways of measuring vital signs unobtrusively.’’

The group envisions embedding tiny sensing devices into clothing or straps to measure heart rate, pulse, sweat levels, body temperature, and activity level. The idea, O’Doherty said, is to detect when elderly people or postoperative patients aren’t moving around enough, suggesting they may be heading for a health crisis. Picking up a problem early could help avert one, he said, adding that athletic wear companies are interested in similar devices to help people track their condition as they exercise.

“Those are the kind of high-value products that people are going to want, and are going to change the face of home health,’’ O’Doherty said.

Center scientists would like to develop implantable devices that could track heart rate or brain waves and predict an impending heart attack or epileptic seizure, Sodini said. Others are working on simple devices that could be used to quickly measure whether someone has strep throat or high cholesterol levels, for instance — instead of waiting days for the test to come back from the lab.

Researchers plan to do this by using the burgeoning field of microfluidics — separating some substances from others, as a coin sorter splits nickels, dimes, and quarters.

“At MIT we have arguably the most activity in microfluidics of any university in the USA, (and maybe worldwide), and so we have the knowledge to take any starting fluid and make any measurement on it,’’ Joel Voldman, the electrical engineering associate professor heading up that work, wrote in an e-mail. “By collaborating with both industry and local clinicians, we are working to define applications that will have both high volume and fill a critical need.’’

One of the center’s first projects is aimed at advancing ultrasound technology. Over the last 20 years, ultrasound machines have shrunk from the size of washing machines to something more like a laptop, and from more than $20,000 each to around $8,000. Now they need to become even cheaper and easier to use, said GE chief technologist Kai Thomenius.

Anthony, the center’s codirector, was developing a next-generation ultrasound six months ago, when another center official introduced him to Dr. Anthony E. Samir, a radiologist working barely a mile away at Massachusetts General Hospital. Now the two are collaborating, with Anthony providing mechanical engineering expertise, and Samir offering real-world experience to help guide the work. Anthony didn’t realize until Samir told him that ultrasound technicians frequently suffer injuries from repetitive motions. The new device will take that into account.

“We had geographic proximity, but what we lacked were the social networks,’’ said Samir, director of ultrasound at MGH Imaging. “One of the things the [center] does is it creates the social networks to allow us to take advantage of our geographic proximity.’’

The ultrasound wand Anthony is designing can “feel’’ and respond to pressure. Currently, technicians must vary their pressure to get the image they want. It takes a lot of training and practice to use ultrasound equipment well, and even skilled technicians can’t get the exact same image twice, he said.

A “smart’’ wand that can be programmed to deliver a set amount of pressure will relieve strain on the technician and take more consistent images over time, allowing doctors to judge, for instance, if a tumor is growing. It will also be able to tell, say, if a blood vessel is getting dangerously stiff, Anthony said, and may be able to detect small tumors because of their rigidity, according to Thomenius.

The more reliable and versatile ultrasound becomes, the more it will be able to replace more expensive and more dangerous scans like X-rays and PET, Anthony said. An ultrasound with these capabilities that is also cheaper and smaller will have huge commercial potential, he added, which is why GE, a leader in the ultrasound field, is participating.

“When you put together a premier R&D industrial research lab with a premier academic research institution like MIT,’’ Thomenius said, “sparks are going to fly.’’