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Sometimes thinking big, means thinking really, really small.
Nearly a decade ago, Medtronic set out to revolutionize medical devices, to shrink them, by up to 90 percent.
“We didn’t want to make them small for “small’s sake,” but to make them smaller and less invasive while providing the same or better therapy for patients,” said Paul Gerrish, director of technology at the Medtronic facility in Tempe, Arizona, where much of the miniaturization work took place.
“People were saying that we were defying the laws of physics,” recalled Mark Phelps, senior program director and a key leader of the miniaturization team. “They said it wasn’t possible.”
But these fears proved wrong.
Using the same technology that compressed computing into the palm of your hand, micro-electronics experts in Arizona, along with designers, engineers and medical experts in Minnesota and elsewhere, found they could reinvent medical devices, using just a fraction of the space.
“We did. We succeeded,” Gerrish said. “The real key was how much power the electronics used and what size battery we needed.”
Thanks to micro-electronics, ultra-low-power medical devices now use less energy when turned on than smartphones do when turned off, allowing them to be much smaller in size.
“These devices are maintaining the level of performance that we have on our larger systems,” said Charles Gordon, senior design manager. “And in some ways there’s even more intelligence in them in certain aspects.”
The first of those high performing devices are beginning to reach patients.
After surviving a stroke, Bill Thompson now wears a tiny implanted heart monitor called Reveal LINQ™ Insertable Cardiac Monitor (ICM).
Bill needed a monitor to help determine whether heart problems caused his stroke. Traditional external technology could only monitor his heart for a few days or weeks, and the existing implantable heart monitors were significantly larger than the LINQ device. But at just one-third the size of a AAA battery, the LINQ device monitors his heart 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to three years, on a battery that wouldn’t last three minutes powering a light bulb.
“I think this is a major step forward,” said Dr. Gary Boliek, cardiologist at Lexington Health Systems in Kentucky. “Many patients that have atrial arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation in particular, atrial flutter as well, won’t be recognized unless this loop recorder is inserted,” he said. See more of Bill’s story and how two Medtronic technologies are helping him recover.
Medtronic also has developed a new type of pacemaker the size of a large vitamin. At less than one-tenth the size of a traditional pacemaker, it is implanted directly into the heart and does not require the use of wires ("leads") to deliver pacing therapy, thereby reducing potential sources of complications seen with conventional pacing systems. Learn more about Micra.
“By making things small enough, what we’re able to do is dramatically change the procedure of how these devices are used, to make them much less invasive which is better for the patient,” said Chris Zillmer, vice president of Research and Technology.
Medtronic scientists and engineers envision a day when even smaller implanted devices, too small to be built by human hands, could help patients stay healthy by monitoring their internal activity for warning signs of new problems.
“So it’s the first time you can have truly personalized medicine,” Phelps said. “They’ve been talking about that for decades, but we haven’t had the tools to get this real time feedback.”
That could also mean smartphone displays of that real time data, to help patients constantly stay on top of their health.
Medtronic engineers believe it is still possible to make devices much smaller, perhaps up to ten times smaller than the miniaturized devices are today. After all, they’ve done it before.
“It’s an exciting time,” Gerrish said. “It’s an exciting time to be an engineer and you see the progress of technology. The opportunity to make a positive impact on human health has never been greater.”
Because it turns out thinking small, can lead to something really, really big.
Read the Medtronic Perspective on Transforming Healthcare:
Transforming Medtronic to Support Progress in Healthcare (PDF)