Road to the clinic: opportunities in biophotonics

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Turning biophotonic technologies into a clinical device is a long and difficult road. Jacques Cochard, Tematys founder, reports from the European Photonics Industry Consortium's (EPIC) biophotonics event, entitled 'optimising the road to clinical products', which took place 27-28 November 2013 at the Maastricht University Medical Center in The Netherlands

‘Optimising the road to clinical products’ has paved the way for a growing number of workshops devoted to biophotonics technologies over the last few months. However, what has not generally increased is the number of medical practitioners involved in such events. As an example, one week before this workshop, an information day for the European R&D funding programme for biophotonics held in Brussels was attended by less than five doctors among more than 100 people. If not being able to fulfil the needs of clinicians has been such a key issue in biophotonics, it is most likely because the right people never meet.

It was therefore a real surprise and an inspired initiative that EPIC should hold this workshop in the heart of the Maastricht hospital, as it allowed medical practitioners to speak about their own expectations of photonics technologies and to talk directly with the companies developing and promoting the next generation of photonics devices, without spending too much time away from their usual business of treating patients. Hats off then to the EPIC director for this smart idea and his perseverance in making this meeting happen.

To optimise the road to developing clinical products requires a starting point, a final destination, a map, some stopping-off points, and fuel for the journey. More or less, there are four areas in this journey: R&D in light and tissues interactions; the main expectations from the healthcare community; development buildings blocks to transfer R&D into clinical products; and money for the development phase.

In the first session taking place on the 27 November, about prospective R&D, Professor Francesca Cordeiro from UCL’s Institute of Ophtalmology explained how studies of the eyes will be the basis for future non-invasive examinations of the brain. The eye is an extension of the brain through the retina and optic nerve; the retina, being part of the brain, is also affected by neurodegenerative diseases, for instance. Laser techniques for image analysis provide resolutions of up to 1µm, around the diameter of the optic nerve. The latest advances use spectroscopy techniques for molecular imaging, which can identify changes in the composition of neurons even before morphological changes appear. This might seem like science fiction, but don’t forget the tremendous progress in OCT, from a basic science 20 years ago, to numerous commercial products today and a promising tool for use in structural in vivo real-time analysis in the coming years.

The second session was about the definition of the next generation of products needed for the daily improvement of healthcare systems and patient monitoring, from the operating room to the home. Depending on the end-user, key issues range from real-time highly robust data for surgeons, to wearable and smartphone-compatible devices for elderly people. Professor Kooman, a nephrologist at the Maastricht hospital, presented one design his team is working on: a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system to detect sodium and potassium in human serum. The device is still shoebox-size, but discussion about pen-size nanosecond high beam quality lasers, initiated by a Lithuanian company in the audience, provided a classic example of how connecting the right people can help meet the needs of clinicians. Dr Rutgers Schols (MUMC) and Dries Hettinga (Dutch Diabetes Foundation), in a similar fashion to Professor Kooman’s talk, presented the requirements and expectations in endoscopic surgery and blood glucose monitoring.

The third session highlighted some of the required technologies – photonics and non-photonics related – to bring about such developments. One section dealt with systems development and prototyping, with a speech by Professor Santiago Royo from the University of Barcelona, and two presentations of devices targeting specific diseases from DIAFIR (France) and Multitel (Belgium). The second section was oriented towards building blocks development in microfluidic-integrated devices, with contributions from M. Schmieder (Fraunhofer IWS), who presented a lab-on-chip system, CSEM (Switzerland), ePixFab (European project), 3S photonics (Germany), and ICFO (Spain), the latter detailing information about an enhanced database for the read-out of light-tissue interactions.

The last session of the first day was about fuelling the development and getting a return on investment. Dr Fokko Wieringa (TNO, van ’t Hoff programme and co-organiser of the workshop), described a new way to fund research in medical photonics, implemented at the moment in The Netherlands. Through a mutualisation of research funds from academia, healthcare foundations, leading hospitals and industry, the programme aims to reach a critical mass to put science into devices in a very efficient way. In this open innovation scheme, the transformation from devices to marketable products is still driven by industry but with lower commercial risks, as products fulfilling the needs formulated by healthcare foundations have a very good prognosis for reimbursement and adding true value to society.

Market introduction and deployment is a long task and difficult when dealing with drugs, fluorophores, and any other consumables used for enhanced imaging or improved therapies. But on the other hand, there is now faster entry into the market for components such as miniaturised light sources or faster scanning methods, for example.

Beyond the trade-off between required investment and the expected money back, the next big thing will be the deployment of technology in homecare and well-being applications, and it will be a game changer for all companies involved. Will this deployment be implemented by the more established firms like Zeiss, Philips, GE, Toshiba, Horiba, and Thermo Fisher, newcomers well-suited to mass market business models, such as Procter and Gamble, Danone, Roche, and Google, or mass-manufacturers most suited to solve industrial problems linked to biophotonics chip integration, like Samsung, Intel, and LG? The question remains; we are still writing the first pages of the biophotonic story.


Jacques Cochard founded Tematys in 2010, a photonics-dedicated market study company, after developing technology sourcing and technology transfer among members and stakeholders in the OpticsValley, Paris, France. Since 2010, he has been teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique in France in a course entitled ‘Entrepreneurship and research valorization’.