Medical device technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, thanks to significant improvements in advanced manufacturing, computing power, machine learning and battery technology, along with significant reductions in cost. This means that equipment that once required an entire laboratory to house and operate can now be inexpensive and compact enough to wear – or even implanted into the body.
An example of the capability of modern medical devices is the Cochlear bionic ear, which was developed in Melbourne by Professor Graeme Clark. The Cochlear ear has restored hearing to over 100,000 people worldwide and spawned a local company with a value of more than $9 billion. The next 20 years will likely see the emergence of many new high-tech medical device start-ups and it is possible the next billion dollar ‘Cochlear’ could be based in Melbourne.
A wide range of new medical devices and implantables are currently being developed in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct to treat diseases and conditions that have limited treatment options. These include spinal cord injury, epilepsy, stroke, blindness and neurological degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and even mental illness. Researchers in the United States are currently testing brain implants that deliver electrical impulses to treat mental illness. In November 2017 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first ‘digital’ pill that can send messages to smart phones about a patient’s compliance.
One flagship project within the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct is the development of the bionic eye. This device will help restore sight and allow the blind to recognise faces and even read. The first prototype was implanted in a patient in 2012 and the latest version is now being developed in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.
Another project is developing the Stentrode, a device the size of a matchstick, which is implanted in a blood vessel next to the brain’s control centre for movement. It will one day enable people to control robotic limbs and powered exoskeletons simply by thought. The Stentrode has the potential to transform the lives of amputees, as well as people with spinal injuries, motor neurone disease and other conditions. Human trials will begin in 2018. Sixteen different departments at The University of Melbourne participated in the development of the Stentrode.
World-first clinical trials are also set to begin in Melbourne on a device that will deliver medication directly to the brain to control epilepsy, which is the world’s most common serious brain disorder, affecting around 250,000 Australians. The device uses an implantable pump in the stomach, connected to the brain via a tiny tube, and promises to provide a more potent response with fewer side effects than current epilepsy drugs. Another device targeted at epilepsy patients is implanted under the scalp and can continuously monitor brain activity to detect or predict a seizure. This will significantly improve the quality of care for epilepsy patients.
One key advantage of medical devices is that they may be substantially cheaper and quicker to bring to market compared with conventional drugs and biological therapies. A typical drug takes well over a decade and about $2 billion to progress to market. A medical device generally takes half that time and costs a fraction as much to bring to market. This significantly lowers the cost of commercialising devices and means a more rapid return on investment.