At least 6 million medical devices a year worldwide are surgically implanted in people-- everything from breast implants to chin implants, vascular grafts and penile implants. Years later, if a patient visits a doctor because of problems, medical information such as the manufacturer of the implant or the name of the surgeon may not be available.
No problem, if the patient's implant carries an implant of its own--a microchip on which all relevant information has been encoded. Called SmartDevice, the chip, which is about the size of a grain of rice, is manufactured by Hughes Identification Devices, a subsidiary of Hughes Aircraft Co. In the event of complications with an implant, a doctor could retrieve the information from the chip using a "gun" that emits a radio beam. The gun operates in much the same way that decoders in supermarkets decipher bar coding. The information on the chip would also be recorded on a computer-linked global registry.
LipoMatrix Inc., 33% owned by the biotechnology company Collagen Corp. of Palo Alto, has been issued a patent for the use of SmartDevice in medical devices and has begun putting them into its soybean oil breast implants. SmartDevices are already in about 100 LipoMatrix breast implants tested since October on women in Britain, Italy and Germany.
Stanford University Medical Center will conduct a study on the breast implant chips starting in September.
Upsizing the Silicon Wafer: Sheer economics seem to have quelled the fiercely competitive nature of semiconductor companies. As the cost of fabricating more and more transistors onto a chip continues to soar, even major suppliers such as IBM and Motorola are forging alliances with their foreign competitors. Now the trade associations from various countries have come together to standardize the next generation of silicon wafers.
These wafers are the basic material upon which tiny transistors are etched to produce chips. The larger the wafer, the more chips can be produced from a single slice of silicon. Since the silicon is grown as a single crystal before being cut into wafers, it is no easy task to produce larger sizes. Currently the state-of-the-art wafer measures eight inches. In the past, the push for ever larger wafers was driven by individual companies seeking a competitive advantage.
But with the costs of wafer fabrication soaring, it is generally agreed that no one company or country can afford to fund the transition to the next generation alone. Thus, at a recent summit meeting in San Francisco, representatives from the United States, Japan and Europe agreed in principle on the next wafer size as well as an international standard for those wafers. The representatives have settled on a 12-inch wafer and agreed to form global task forces to define the steps for the transition. All that is delaying a definitive agreement is a go-ahead from Japan's trade groups.
Swiss Army Surgery: Conventional surgical scalpels and clamps are of little use to surgeons operating on the narrow, twisted, deep-set vessels of the brain. That's why a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory biomedical engineer has been collaborating with neuroradiologists from the University of California, San Francisco. Their aim is to create smaller and better surgery tools that can be inserted into the brain at the end of wire-thin catheters.
M. Allen Northrup, the Livermore engineer, says the goal is to create an array of tools--sort of a Swiss army knife for surgeons. Northrup is working on a barely visible mechanical gripping device that can be opened and closed at the end of a catheter. Using tools like this, surgeons will be able to manipulate objects where their hands cannot go. Such tools would let surgeons quickly place or reposition implants such as microcoils, which are used to restrict blood flow during surgery. With these new tools, operating room time for brain vessel operations could drop from about four hours to 45 minutes.
Fish Tents: What do you do with old, unused oil rigs, especially when there is a federal mandate to remove or convert decommissioned platforms in the Gulf of Mexico? A joint effort between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NET Systems Inc., a Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based developer of trawl fishing gear, wants to turn them into fish pens for the offshore raising of fish.
A prototype model looks very much like an underwater tent made of netting, with the top of the tent anchored to the platform and the wider bottom portion anchored to pilings in the ocean floor. Tests of the model indicate that it should safely weather rough gulf storms.
Fish pens joined to oil rigs also offer alternative employment possibilities for people who have lost work as a result of changes in the fishing and oil industries.