Photonics: a healthcare innovation for the future

The promise that integrated photonics can make healthcare more accessible is based on the fact that patients will soon be able to conduct their own examinations at home and therefore no longer have to travel to the hospital. In addition, the technology is cheaper, which means that healthcare costs can be further limited.

The technology can be used, among other things, to measure the oxygen level in the blood, to scan a suspicious mole or to make a heart film. This ensures that diseases are detected earlier, and possibly also at an earlier stage. This also contributes to a decrease in healthcare costs, because treatment can be started earlier, the patient is likely to recover faster and, partly as a result, less care is required.

Photonics development at Enzyre

Enzyre is a startup and spin-off of Radboudumc, which uses integrated photonics for its healthcare innovations. For example, they are working there on a device that examines the clotting factor VIII in the blood. The company was founded in 2015 by Waander van Heerde. In addition to Enzyre, he is also still, part-time, head of the special coagulation lab at Radboudumc.

“Our platform technology will be the first to be used for hemophiliacs. These people have a deficiency of factor VIII in their blood, which means they have a high risk of bleeding. You can treat this very well via injections that patients use to bring that amount of FVIII to the right level. With our device, the patient can measure the extent of the Factor VIII deficiency at home. With an additional injection, the patient can then quickly adjust it himself, so that the bleeding stops,” says Van Heerde.

The application measures the number of photons in the blood. At the moment this is done with a sensor that works on classic chips. In the future, this should become possible with integrated photonics. The use of photonic sensors has several advantages. Firstly, the research is cheaper and faster and less blood is needed.

Van Heerde therefore predicts a great future for photonics in healthcare. “Healthcare must become cheaper. This is possible with integrated photonics, because optical chips are faster, use less energy and therefore become more efficient. Thanks to photonics, the laboratory is no longer in the hospital, but we bring it to the patient’s living room.”

Photonic chips

In photonics, light particles, photons, are used to transfer information. The technology detects, generates, transports and processes light. Photonics is used in, among other things, solar cells, sensors and fiber optic networks.

Photonic chips, or Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs), integrate the various photonic (and electronic) functions into a microchip. These are used in the development of energy-efficient devices and are produced in a similar way to traditional chips. Mass production will reduce the cost of photonic chips.

Another example of the possibilities that photonics can unlock in healthcare dates from 2019. Quix, a spin-off from the University of Twente, started developing a photonic chip for researchers and R&D departments. This chip should make it possible, among other things, to make complex calculations accessible to researchers in healthcare. Think, for example, of calculating how a molecule functions or choosing a medicine that is precisely tailored to the individual.

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