Vision Alleviates Pain Points in Life Sciences Market
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
With global healthcare spending expected to increase by 4.3% over today’s unprecedented levels, the life sciences market represents a massive target for automated, productivity-enhancing technology. Revenues in the medical technology segment alone are expected to rise from $369 billion in 2015 to $454 billion in 2019, while point-of-care (POC) testing is forecasted to reach $28.3 billion 2021.
“In developed countries there is more and more money spent on life sciences not only targeting aging populations but new treatment methods that dramatically simplify the lives of doctors and patients,” says Carsten Traupe, director of global product strategy at Allied Vision Technologies (Stadtroda, Germany).
To deliver viable products and services, however, the industry must contend with a number of market pressures: pricing controls, talent shortages, demand for innovation, tightening regulations, and economic uncertainty.
Thanks to advances in imaging and sensor technologies, vision companies are more poised than ever to help their life-sciences customers confront these demands by developing solutions for researchers and clinicians alike with the ultimate goal of cheaper, faster and better patient care.
Better Technology, More Opportunities
From lab automation to digital radiography, machine vision has been a major player in the life-sciences market during the last few decades. Technological advances are refining existing applications and opening the door to new ones.
“We are bringing the new Sony Pregius sensors to market in our new Manta cameras, which offer brilliant picture quality even in less favorable light conditions like microscopy,” says Allied Vision’s Traupe. The CMOS sensors have more than 50% better dynamic range over traditional CCD sensors.
Allied Vision also is rolling out new models of the high-performance Prosilica GT camera (up to 26.2 megapixels), equipped with high-resolution Python CMOS sensors from ON Semiconductor — the first of their kind available in an optional NIR version with increased sensitivity in the near-infrared range.
Besides the call for higher-resolution, high-dynamic range cameras, Allied Vision is seeing increased demand for embedded vision solutions that bring together the sensor and image processing in a smaller form factor. One such example is a handheld 3D oral scanner that allows a dentist to take a measurement of a missing tooth in order to make a replacement. The 3D scanner eliminates the need for biting down on special paper to make a tooth imprint. “It’s the same type of paradigm change you see in metrology systems where you’re replacing the traditional tactile measurement device with a noncontact 3-D handheld scanner,” Traupe says. “In such applications there is no space to use a housed camera,” Traupe says. “typically you would need to separate the sensor board from the image processing board, and there’s no USB cable anymore so you would need to include it directly with pins with other PCBs.”
Multispectral’s Multiple Targets
Another technology gaining traction in life sciences is multispectral imaging and sensing, which extracts spectral information at specific visible and infrared wavelengths. Pixelteq, a division of Ocean Optics (Dunedin, Florida), just commercially launched its PixelCam™ line of OEM multispectral cameras, which uses patented micro-patterned filter array technology aligned directly with the sensor. The resulting cameras provide full-frame images of objects as seen through up to 9 narrow spectral bands; standard modules are available for 4-channel visible+NIR and NIR+SWIR (shortwave infrared).
Pixelteq’s biomedical customers rely on multispectral technology to provide diagnostic information across a number of applications. One such use is tissue visualization. For example, multi-wavelength detection would allow a medical specialist to visualize differences in the skin beyond RGB when examining a suspicious mole for signs of cancer. “Whether you’re looking at burns or skin cancer, or trying to distinguish live from dead from infected tissue, multispectral is going to be that workhorse tool,” says Jennifer Odom, Product Manager, Sensors, Raman & Multispectral for Ocean Optics, Biomed Market at Pixelteq.
Odom expects that OEM life sciences customers will launch their first products using Pixelteq technology in the next 1 to 2 years due to regulatory requirements and review. “From there, we will start to move to more customizable versions where users will add channels or further optimize wavelengths,” she says.
Pixelteq also offers PixelSensor, an array of photodiodes that split the spectrum into 8 discrete color bands to create a multispectral detector that collects point-source spectral information. Pixelteq plans to release a version of the product that is specific to florescent-based detection used in PCR (polymerase chain reaction) applications. PCR is a technique that “amplifies” a DNA fragment millions of times to detect disease markers. “It’s one of the fastest-growing medical diagnostic techniques being developed for point-of-care applications,” Odom says.
From the Lab to the Patient
While R&D and laboratory use in life sciences remains a strong market for vision systems, applications geared directly toward clinical use are emerging. Huron Digital Pathology (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), which makes the TissueScope digital slide scanner, is targeting both. On the research side, “we have the unique ability to automate the scanning of just about any size slide,” says Patrick Myles, president of Huron Digital Pathology. “We can do standard biopsy slides to prostate slides, which tend to be bigger, up to whole-mount breast and brain tissue.”
The company, which incorporates machine vision cameras from Teledyne DALSA into its scanners, is gaining a foothold in neuroscience and brain imaging, a market in part driven by growing investment in the study of football and other sports-related brain injuries. Researchers will partition the posthumous brain into thousands of slices, digitize each one at very high magnification, and put them together to create a 3D dimensional map. By automating the slide scans, Huron can reduce scan time from a day-and-a-half to 30 minutes.
For clinical settings, on-the-spot digital pathology represents a growth area. Traditionally, if the pathologist wants to consult with a colleague on a particular case, that slide needs to be physically transported. “It takes a lot of time,” Myles says. “You have the patient waiting for a diagnosis, and sometimes the slide gets lost.” With digital pathology, however, the specialist can view a digital slide on a laptop, tablet or cell phone from anywhere and provide a much quicker diagnosis for the patient.
The digitization of pathology slides addresses a significant problem facing the segment: a decreasing population of pathologists and increasing population of cancer biopsies. As Myles puts it, “there’s a bit of a crunch going on right now, which is resulting in the need to use technology to increase the efficiency of the diagnosticians.”
When working with digital slides, pathologists need a system “designed to create an image that’s equivalent to what they’d see under a microscope,” Myles says. “It needs to have the same image resolution, and color fidelity is very important.”
Other important considerations include speed and cost. Cameras need to be fast enough to scan at the current standard of 1 slide per minutes. That has prompted a movement away from traditional CCD cameras toward CMOS cameras. Myles expects adoption of CMOS cameras to rise as they continue to drop in price. For now, he estimates that 90%- 95% of pathologists still use traditional scanning methods.
“But over time you want to see a scanner on every pathologist’s desk in each lab,” Myles says. “To achieve that, you need some economies of scale so that digital pathology can become a ubiquitous technology.”
Regulatory issues also will influence implementation of digital pathology. In Canada, manufacturers of whole-slide scanners must obtain a Health Canada Class II Medical Device license. CE Marking is required for all in-vitro diagnostic (IVD) devices sold in Europe. In the United States, meanwhile, the FDA is in the process of sanctioning the scanners as class II devices for primary diagnosis.
Furthermore, adoption rates vary by country. According to Myles, many hospital networks in Scandinavian countries almost exclusively rely on digital images for diagnosis.
As more people live to older ages and chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer continue to climb, the life sciences sector faces continued pressure to deliver affordable, effective healthcare products and services. Boosted by technological advances in sensors and cameras, machine vision technologies is helping to deliver the goods, enabling cost-effective new research tools and point of care diagnostic systems that help the patient’s body and mind to heal and rise again.