Kristopher Sturgis

October 26, 2016

6 Min Read
How Sensors Are Disrupting Surgical Tools and Diagnostics

Hariharan Subramanian, vice president of research and development at Briteseed, previews his BIOMEDevice San Jose talk on advances in medical sensor technologies and how they're forging the next generation of surgical tools and diagnostic devices.

Kristopher Sturgis

Briteseed's SafeSnips puts low-cost optical sensor technology into the jaws of
surgical dissectors and energy tools to provide real-time information to surgeons. 

When it comes to developing next-generation medical device technologies, we often assume that innovation will come in the form of brand new creations. However, researchers and developers have recently begun to explore avenues that can simply enhance existing device technologies in an effort to evolve the tools already at our fingertips.

It is this kind of thinking that has led two emerging companies, Nanocytomics and Briteseed, to work toward a future with new sensor technologies that can be used in existing diagnostic methods and surgical tools to help improve the efficacy of screening processes and surgical procedures.

Hariharan Subramanian is the chief technology officer of Nanocytomics, a company that strives to enable dramatic improvements in cancer survival rates through new diagnostic techniques and procedures. He's also the vice president of research and development at Briteseed, a company whose mission is to foster innovative technologies aimed at improving the healthcare experience. Subramanian says the key to developing new technologies is finding a way to translate these new innovations into practical applications.

"We have so many technologies coming out that can redefine our world," he says. "The problem is that these rarely get translated into practice because they are either extremely impractical, or extremely expensive."

Subramanian has been working with Nanocytomics to develop new diagnostic screening methods that can detect and measure cellular changes at the nanoscale level to help identify patients in the earliest stage of cancer development, when symptoms haven't even begun to show.

"If you really look at the top most cancers, we have so many patients who are completely normal one day, and then ultimately develop symptoms the next, and they can die within a few months or a year, or something like that," he says. "Most of these patients are asymptomatic to begin with, so we started to think about why this is the case."

The best way to save the lives of these cancer patients is through early detection, Subramanian says. At Nanocytomics, he and his colleagues decided to model their research after one of the most effective screening tools in modern history: the Pap smear. In the 1950s cervical cancer was the No. 1 cancer in women in the United States. Today, Pap smear exams are the first step in a two-tiered screening process that has helped reduce mortality rates for cervical cancer by more than 90%.

"We thought, 'Why can't we have a Pap smear-like test for other types of cancers?' That's where this particular motivation really came into play," he says. "The problem is you can't just come up with an easy to use technique for all of the other types of cancer. So one of the technologies we developed is a technology that is extremely conducive to nanoscale structures."

The result was a new line of screening tools that utilize a proprietary technology known as partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) nanocytology imaging. These PWS-based tests can help aid in risk assessment and early detection of cancers in high-risk, asymptomatic patients -- specifically for those at risk for lung, colon, and other solid-tumor cancers. Subramanian says for these new techniques, the key was identifying cellular changes and mutations before cancer has the opportunity to grow.

"If you think about cancer, we are looking at these mutations that your body constantly undergoes before the conditions are right for cancer to grow," he says. "These new innovations have enabled us to develop minimally invasive techniques that can be used by a primary care physician. For example, we can brush the cells from the cheek of a patient, much like a Pap smear, but to help identify lung cancer -- and for colon cancer, we can simply brush the cells from the rectum. So with these innovations we can try to make a massive dent to the cancer mortality rates going on right now. If our technique comes to market, we could possibly reduce cancer rates by more than 90 percent, similar to what happened with the introduction of the Pap smear."

Of course, their work doesn't stop with just cancer screening methods. Over the summer Briteseed announced the development of its new surgical instrument, known as Safesnips. The new, low-cost optical sensor technology integrates directly into the jaws of surgical dissectors and energy tools to provide real-time information to the surgeon during operations. The sensor technology can identify the presence and diameter of blood vessels in the immediate cutting area and alert surgeons via a video monitor before they make any potentially dangerous cuts. This particular feature could prove critical for surgeons performing delicate or minimally invasive procedures.

"These kinds of sensor technologies are extremely critical for the future of major and minimally invasive surgeries," Subramanian says. "More and more companies are migrating toward minimally invasive surgeries and robotic surgical procedures."

Both Briteseed and Nanocytomics have prioritized working with surgeons and physicians during the development of these new diagnostic methods and device technologies to ensure that the transition into the next-gen phase is as smooth and simple as possible, Subramanian says. He believes that this kind of collaboration is what will help bring these technologies to market faster, so they can begin to improve patient care as soon as possible.

"At each and every step of the way we've tried to coordinate with surgeons to get feedback to see if we have to make device changes," he says. "We want to develop a technology that can be easily integrated into their surgical tools so they don't have to use something quite so different from what they're currently using. We're also talking with potential product development companies and collaborators to come up with these kind of devices that can be custom manufactured so that we integrate them as simply as possible."

Hear more from Subramanian on the advancements of medical sensor technologies and their impact on medtech innovation at the year's BIOMEDevice San Jose showcase at the San Jose Convention Center on December 8.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed.

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[image courtesy of BRITESEED]

About the Author(s)

Kristopher Sturgis

Kristopher Sturgis is a freelance contributor to MD+DI.

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