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RF chips find big market in medical apps

Posted: 11 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:RF chip? frequency radio? medical application?

Radio frequency CMOS is being applied to a growing but fragmented set of medical applications ranging from imaging and DNA testing to networking in and around the body, a panel of experts concluded in a session before the formal opening of the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC).

Presenters described the rollout of RF communications in medical implants and body-area network devices for a wide variety of research and commercial uses. They also described advances using RF to create a handheld DNA analyzer and better medical imaging systems. The evening session attracted a full house of more than 200 attendees but some members expressed frustration at the fragmented nature of the opportunities.

"A number of us are here because we think the next thing in chips is in medical, but none of this looks like more than a few hundred thousand or a million units, not like the billions of sockets in cellphones sold a year," said one audience member in a Q&A session.

"If we take the path of disposable sensors the market will be really, really large," said Donhee Ham, a Harvard researcher and one of the presenters. "Another possibility is if we can mass produce the diagnostic systems cheaply we can help bring global health care to parts of the world that have no services today," he added.

"There are so many applications and they are scattered all over the place, so it's hard to identify what will be big," added Jacques Rudell, a professor at the University of Washington who helped organize the session.

RF boost
Javaid Masoud, a technical fellow at Medtronic described how the company is using RF as a communications link in its cardiac implantable devices. The company helped pioneer the 402- to 405MHz Medical Implant Communications Services (MICS) standard.

Medtronic launched its first cardiac devices using MICS in May 2006 and had more than 128,000 of them implanted by July 2008. The devices use Medtronic's own technology, although merchant companies including Zarlink Semiconductor now ship MICS chips, too.

"We designed the radio circuitry, antennas, baseband chips and the comms protocols inside Medtronic," Masoud said. "We felt we had to do it ourselves because of the unique application," he added.

The company is now applying MICs to a range of more than a dozen different types of implantable devices it is developing for disorders ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's disease.

In a separate paper, Brian Otis of the University of Washington discussed efforts using RF to create body area networks for a wide range of uses.

"A lot of the early deployments that will drive this will be for animals," he said.

Researchers are using RF sensor nets for everything from studying brain waves in lab rats to how sparrows learn their songs in the wild. Human applications include RF sensor nets for elder care, eye implants and monitoring brain signals for patients with neural disorders.

The applications typically demand modules that are extremely low in cost, power and weight. To meet those targets, developers are looking to use analog and digital signal processing to replace general purpose processors, energy harvesting rather than batteries and passives and MEMS devices to act as radios.

Power up medical imaging, tests
The market for medical test and imaging systems is pegged at $30 billion a year but could grow to more than $100 million with the rise of DNA test gear, said Kris Iniewski, a representative of CMOS Emerging Technologies Inc., a group that conducts technology and business events.

"This is an area under-appreciated by silicon designers," said Iniewski. "There are many ASICs from companies such as Philips, Siemens and GE here, but few standard products," he added.

He said he expects the same transition from ASICs to ASSPs that came to communications systems in the 1990's will come to medical test gear in the next several years. For example, components are needed to reduce the $2 million price tag of MRI systems and to increase the sensitivity of CT scanners, he said.

"Many of the products I am familiar with are 180-350nm designs, so it doesn't necessarily require the latest process technology," he added.

Ham of Harvard described a handheld DNA tester more sensitive than existing systems that are as large as two desktop PCs. The device uses nuclear magnetic resonance based on a CMOS RF chip and a $3 magnet the size of a large bottle cap.

The device sports a pico-molecular sensitivity, meaning it can detect a single target protein in 40 trillion water molecules. It can be used for diagnosing medical disorders including cancer and diabetes as well as checking for environmental contaminants.

"We are currently discussing using this system at the Harvard Medical School and other local hospitals in real clinical trials," said Ham. "Our hope is this system finds real applications."

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology will present a paper at ISSCC on their own work in this area. They will describe a frequency shifting magnetic biosensor with single bead sensitivity that aims to replace today's bulky and expensive microarray DNA testers.

"The objective here is to get to a biosensor you can carry with you," said Ali Hajimiri, a Caltech professor of electrical engineer and a presenter in the evening session. "This could be used for personal medicine, hazardous material detection and diagnostics," he said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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