With increasing demand for healthcare innovation, Rosie Casey, Vice President of High Growth Companies & Life Sciences UK, IDA Ireland, explores the future of photonics in the medical healthcare industry and the necessary requirements for such innovation to thrive.

The healthcare industry is going through a transformation as technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology continue to improve healthcare across the world.

These technologies are increasingly being embedded into medical technology (MedTech) through medical devices, which has set the industry in a prime position for innovation and improvements. With a market value of half a trillion dollars – expected to increase to over $600 billion in 2023 – medical device companies are looking to apply these innovations with agility to their production lines in order to meet current needs, as well as increasing predicted demand years down the line.

One particularly monumental transformation in the MedTech industry is the utilisation of photonics – the science and technology of light and, distinctly, the ability to generate, manipulate, amplify, guide and detect light. Whilst not necessarily a household term, photonics is an ubiquitous technology in everyday life and has been recognised by the European Commission as one of Europe’s key enabling technologies (KETs) of this century.

The utility of photonics has become omnipresent in everyday life, in telecommunications, manufacturing processes, construction, space exploration and aviation and agriculture to name a few. As photonics and other emerging technologies are increasing embedded into healthcare, they will help provide cheaper, faster and more effective solutions for illnesses and diseases. So, the question in the next few years is: how can technological advancements like photonics be developed efficiently and applied most effectively to the healthcare industry?

Revolutionising the healthcare industry

Although the incorporation of photonics into the healthcare system has been gradual, results so far have already brought significant changes to medical practice. One of them includes the widespread popularity of laser eye surgery that has replaced glasses and contact lenses to mitigate eye conditions such as myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism.

Perhaps more monumental is the accurate detection and treatment of cancer and diseases. This has come at a time of continuing reports of failed, wrong or late diagnosis. For instance, it was documented by England’s National Health Service (NHS) that in the three years before 2019, there were 4,097 successful compensation claims arising out of an incorrect or delayed diagnosis and £583 million paid out to claimants. One major contributor to these occurrences were cancer misdiagnosis. Due to human error, doctors cannot always be 100% accurate with a diagnosis, but this becomes an issue when someone receiving this misdiagnosis could face life-changing problems. As a result, medical professionals are increasingly looking to photonics’ diagnosis technologies to ensure they are giving the patient the finest, most accurate service.

Photonics also play an important role in detecting, mitigating and treating cancers, as they allow doctors to study the structure of biological tissues at a drastically smaller scale and allow real-time and dynamic visualisation of complex macromolecules, like DNA and proteins. This has proved pivotal for creating new solutions for clinical diagnosis and therapies. Whilst these photonic nanomedicines are undergoing clinical trials, their effectiveness in cancer treatment have already been highlighted in pre-clinical trials and will help shape the future of medicine and medical procedures. Not only will photonics be crucial for ophthalmology and oncology by detecting and treating diseases and illnesses, but it will also revolutionise the health monitoring sector.

Due to the non-evasive nature of photonics and its unprecedented resolution and depth, detailed information can be gathered, including a wide range of biomarkers from glucose trends to blood alcohol. Popular smart watches could offer health monitoring far beyond the current “sleep, steps and heart” standard. What’s more, this technology could flag up serious diseases and other common health concerns – and doctors could then use these applications to inform their diagnosis, monitoring and treatment.

Developing a vibrant photonics ecosystem

In order to reach the potential of photonics, strong research and development, talent and investment is an absolute requirement.

Facilitating these inroads is Ireland, which is quickly becoming a MedTech hotspot for companies due to its highly interconnected ecosystem, talent pool and regulatory regime that supports a thriving MedTech industry. Ireland contains more than 300 MedTech companies supported by academic, clinical, industry, and government agencies.

Well-known enterprises such as Johnson & Johnson, Boston Scientific and Stryker have long-established operations in the country. Particularly, the Science Foundation Ireland Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Centre (AMBER) has the ability to co-fund projects with the collaborating company, which makes it attractive to early-stage high risk research. With support from the Irish Government and IDA Ireland, more companies are noticing the exciting prospect to help them kickstart their potential.

The rich research ecosystem Ireland has developed is opportune for innovation. This involves the close collaboration between Ireland’s top tier universities, its 14 Institutes for technology, and its seven clinical research facilities to ensure the evolving skill needs of this fast-growing sector are met. This makes Ireland ranked number one globally for the exchange of technology and ideas, which explains why 14 of the world’s top 15 medical device companies have a base in Ireland. Boston Scientific has recently announced a $30 million investment into its Cork facility to accelerate its research and development of medical technologies to treat patients suffering from cancer and peripheral arterial diseases around the world.

Finally, world-leading companies establishing operations in the country gain access to Ireland’s young talent. Whilst Ireland’s universities are ranked number one globally for the highest employable graduates, Ireland also bolsters a strong business network of companies that share best practices and identify specific skill needs of the sector. For instance, the Irish Medtech Skillnet is co-funded by Skillnet Ireland and network companies such as the Nation Training Fund and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. All this, as a result, has generated a highly skilled and knowledgeable, cross-sectoral ecosystem.

Looking ahead, it’s clear: the future of healthcare lies in working hand-in-hand with technology, and healthcare workers have to embrace emerging healthcare technologies in order to stay relevant in the coming years. With the optimal environment and support, companies that continue to create and deliver innovative technologies, such as photonics, are perfectly positioned to makes waves in the future of healthcare.