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Moonshot for Life

Technology soon in the hands of physicians and patients

Technology soon in the hands of physicians and patients

We talked to Jo De Boeck, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at imec, a world-renowned research centre and collaboration platform on nano-electronics and digital technology, headquartered in Leuven (Belgium).  In his 30+ year career in innovation in the digital arena he has held a variety of positions at imec, from individual contributor and leadership roles in R&D teams to managing director of research divisions in imec's international setting.  Currently he focuses on the long term strategy and innovation pipeline of imec, large collaborative projects with regional and international stakeholders.

What’s your vision on the future of healthcare?

Jo: You start with the most difficult question first. Healthcare is a complex problem. What we see now is that we focus too much on the disease part of health, but we need to make sure that we start early enough. The citizens become aware of how they can actually start managing their own health. But when health is jeopardized and we enter into the phase where we need to see a medical doctor and the professionals, but we have then to make sure the diagnose is correct, quick and early on, that the therapy is very functional. So in that global challenge, we believe many actors need to play. Technology is one of them.

What’s imec developing and researching to intervene earlier in the disease process?

Jo: If you look at the different phases that we just discussed, technology is going to be relevant in all of them. Specifically, we have been focusing first on bringing our nanotechnology, because that’s what our beating heart is, it’s nanotechnology and developing technology for integrated circuits, chips as you know them. We can reuse this technology for making life science-based tools and these tools will become at the research side but also at the clinic, will become very powerful. We can make the scientists Because we can miniaturize, as we have seen with the chips that we use day in day out. We can also make them very functional. We can start having them communicate with biospecimen, with samples that medical doctors take from patients. We can make the diagnostics very much more powerful, we can make the scientists see where they have not been able to see before, if you think of brain research. We can make probes that can actually take  multifunctional and very vast amounts of data to increase the level of understanding. Coming then closer to the patient and the citizen, we can use our standard wearable technology and also data science in general to capture signals, even microsignals in our daily life that are pointing to certain conditions of which you may be predisposed or maybe not. Just casual running into them. And capture the profile of a coming disease early on. In all of these facets we see are very huge demands of how technology in general will come into practice.

These tiny chips will enable to better diagnose diseases?

Jo: Tiny chips means of course first of all we have developed this technology for making more powerful compute chips. And on these compute chips, the switches that are used to to do the computing are on the order of let’s say a few nanometers today. The evolution has been fantastic from an engineering perspective. But if you look at that size and looking at DNA, looking at proteins and looking at whatever molecule that’s in a typical sample, you can start interfacing at a molecular level there as well. And one of the most powerful tools that we know today, for looking at a human condition is of course DNA sequencing. One of the prime projects that we have seen over the last decade or so is to start interfacing with next-generation sequencing companies to bring the technology that we have built for chips in their hands or in their tools better said, to miniaturize the tools, make them cheaper which is nice, but make them more powerful, more precise. That’s where chips become disposables in these tools and we abuse let’s say the same silicon technology to start to interface with biospecimens. Jus tone example of this technology to become very powerful. But you can think of implants, you can think of smaller wearable components that are not obtrusive in daily life, it will take data without you knowing it.

What are some of the most recent innovations imec has developed in this field?

Jo: Maybe we should separate on the different phases of where to interface with a person. The most higher level one is the data. We need to look at machine learning and artificial intelligence in this scene. We have recently merged with a research center on data science to make sure that our hardware development and the software and data development come together. So in the cloud or in the personal cloud, a lot of data will be generated. This is one of the more powerful resources for tackling better health. Having said that. This data needs to come from somewhere and so of course wearables as we know them are typically gadgets, but gadgets can give you interesting insights. But if you want to have them really help your health condition or control your healthy condition. You need to make sure that they are medically qualified. So we have done a lot of work on wearables where the physician, the clinical practitioner recognizes whatever comes from a wearable technology really being a patch or a wrist band or a head set, that these are proof, medical proof, so they take them in as real data. So we have helped companies that do cardio measurements, we have helped companies to make wrist bands that are containing tens of measurements that you know can use as a medical platform. One of our not so recent ones is a development we did with Samsung, they recognized imec’s technology as being very powerful and made a development platform. Moving further into the clinical setting, I mentioned DNA sequencing. We are looking at cell sorter chips for doing therapy monitoring or early diagnosis, too much to talk about, but all of these are actually focus on the needs of the clinical professional or of you and I as healthy subjects.

The tools you are developing are pretty transformational?

Jo: Our ambitions are steep, as typically for our institute. We have changed the way research is done in the semiconductor technology. We are recognized for that as being number one player in the field. But with this powerful ecosystem, with this technology at hand, we can really revolutionize the way of doing diagnostics, early diagnostics or keeping people healthy, but also changing the way that a medical professional will look at his or her job. And I think one of the final frontiers, and I read your moonshots, the brain is also there. We are launching a new initiative, called Mission Lucidity, where we bring together the strong players in this region but of course reach out immediately internationally to the field to see whether we can get everyone behind a mission where technology can be transformational, not on an island, but again in connection with the clinical researchers or the clinical practitioners and also the preclinical research. And so we look at new technologies that will decode dementia as we call it. And so trying to make a difference there as well.

That’s quite a moonshot!

Jo: It is!


When can society expect innovations like the disposable diagnostic? Is that close?

Jo: Yes, depending on where you look. The tougher problems like dementia I would say there is really a waiting time. You need to hold our breath and work hard. But on many of the therapies we are currently having, which are much more personalized, we will se a companioning diagnostic device that will be demanded because of the cost of the therapy, and in this way we can tackle orphan diseases as well. Where development of medication is very difficult, but we look at cancer therapy where it’s very personalized and very tumor-specific and changes over the lifetime of a disease or something like that.  Technology is going to be in the hands of the physician and the patient. That will come soon. Soon let’s say 5 years from now we will see them come in.         


What’s your moonshot?

I mentioned the brain, I think it’s a very important one. I would like to put that on a stand first, that’s where we need to go. We can then, and that’s what we do in our daily lives help from our technology perspective all of the professionals and the people in the field, there are so many moonshots to define there. If you would ask me one, let’s take the health of the brain and if we can make a difference there.