07 Mar 2018

Medical innovations enter the market

Utter a longer vowel ‘a’ as well as the sentence ‘the north wind and the sun were arguing one day which one of them was stronger’ into your phone and the mobile app Voice Screen will assess potential voice issues and help diagnose disease early on. Developed by scientists from the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences (LSMU), the product is the first of its kind. Meanwhile, a non-invasive intracranial pressure meter developed by Professor Arminas Ragauskas of the Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) is already being used by scientists at NASA.

“It’s a great time for innovation in the field of health right now because the life sciences are getting a lot of attention in Lithuania,” says Laima Matusevičienė, head of the Development Department at LSMU. According to data provided by LSMU, interest in the development of medical innovation has grown more than threefold in the business sector over the past three years. Robertas Armonaitis of the KTU National Innovation and Business Centre says young business is also being encouraged. Over the past five years, of the 67 start-ups founded by KTU, eight are actively involved in developing medical technology. There are now several KTU subdivisions working in the field of biomedical innovation: the Biomedical Engineering Institute, the Health Telematics Science Institute, the Professor Kazimieras Baršauskas Ultrasound Research Institute and the Institute of Material Science. In Santaka Valley, KTU has entered into a collaborative relationship with Kaunas Science and Technology Park.

There are now several KTU subdivisions working in the field of biomedical innovation: the Biomedical Engineering Institute, the Health Telematics Science Institute, the Professor Kazimieras Baršauskas Ultrasound Research Institute and the Institute of Material Science. In Santaka Valley, KTU has entered into a collaborative relationship with Kaunas Science and Technology Park.

If the goal is to produce a surge in innovation, an idea with potential or an innovative product needs to find its investor – either in Lithuania or abroad – with as much ease as possible. This exact goal was set by OPEN R&D Lithuania, an open-access network for research and development that has brought together 14 national universities, 13 national research institutes, seven science and technology parks as well as 25 open-access centres. As the largest innovation infrastructure, service and competence network in the Baltic states, it facilitates the meeting of Lithuanian researchers developing advanced technologies and entrepreneurs from Lithuania and beyond, encouraging their cooperation.

From medical devices to implants

LSMU is the largest Lithuanian university in the field of biomedicine and one of the founders of the Kaunas Clinics and the Kaunas Clinical Hospital. The head of the Development Department at LSMU, Laima Matusevičienė, emphasises that a synergy between research, academic studies and clinical practice is crucial – the specialised clinics operating under the LSMU Faculty of Medicine and the Kaunas Clinics cover almost all areas of medicine. Some of the physicians working there are also LSMU scientists and researchers. They have first-hand experience of the needs in healthcare and can propose various innovative solutions that can be applied in the sector: from IT solutions and software to implants, prostheses and new or improved medical devices.

LSMU is the largest Lithuanian university in the field of biomedicine and one of the founders of the Kaunas Clinics and the Kaunas Clinical Hospital.

For example, in 2017, Professor Virgilijus Ulozas’ group collaborated with a partner in the business sector to create the mobile app Voice Screen. The team used clinical data collected by the LSMU – voice recordings of patients admitted to the Ear, Nose and Throat Disease Clinic. Around 10% of the population suffer from afflictions of the voice or hoarseness. The causes of these afflictions are not always common colds or vocal fatigue after intense use of the vocal chords. Various voice disorders can be caused by benign or malignant tumours in the larynx, and hoarseness is often an early symptom of throat cancer. iOs product users can download the Voice Screen app from the App Store and use the app to conduct an automatic analysis of their voice, calculating an acoustic quality index based on six different vocal parameters. The app allows the objective measurement of possible changes in the voice and provides appropriate recommendations.

Aerial view of Kaunas University of Technology based in the second largest city of Lithuania. Photo: Shutterstock

“In the field of IT, many other ideas are also being developed. Businesses are helping researchers create software for identifying, for example, skin tumours, tracking various states of pregnancy or diseases such as diabetes. An app installed on a smart watch or any other smart device will allow the wearer to track changes in the body and follow recommendations to take their medication or visit the doctor,” explains Matusevičienė.

Another direction LSMU innovation is heading in is the development of medical equipment. For example, under the leadership of Professor Vytautas Jašinskas, researchers at the Eye Disease Clinic have developed a device for fixing the position of a submerged intraocular lens in the eye during cataract surgery that makes attaching the intraocular lens to the iris a more simple procedure and thus ensures a higher success rate for surgical intervention. A patent application has already been submitted and the team is currently negotiating possibilities for product commercialisation with a foreign company.

At the LSMU Faculty of Dentistry and Clinic of Maxillofacial Surgery, a team led by Professor Gintaras Juodžbalis has created a tool for observing changes in the width of alveoli after tooth extraction. This tool means that the patient does not have to go through the process of getting a CT scan, decreasing radiation exposure and leading to better observation results. The instrument is not damaging to the patient, produces accurate results and is easy to use.

LSMU scientists under the leadership of Professor Ingrida Ulozienė partnered with Professor Vaidotas Marozas’ team from KTU to produce a mobile virtual reality system for testing the subjective visual vertical. The technology is designed to diagnose patients with complaints of dizziness and assess cases of vestibular function (balance perception) disorder. This advanced and substantially more accurate diagnostic system is comprised of a virtual reality headset for the patient as well as a hand tracking device, the physician’s device for controlling the diagnostic session and a remote physician’s device for collecting and analysing diagnostic data. The test does not require a dark room as previous technology did, and the equipment is easy to transport, making it possible to diagnose the patient wherever they may be.

Scientists led by Professor Arimantas Tamašauskas from the LSMU Neuroscience Institute and the Neurosurgery Clinic teamed up with the Kaunas-based company Baltic Orthoservice to develop next generation custom implants with integrated sensors that allow specialists to observe changes in the patient’s condition in real time.

Attracting business

LSMU has all the possibilities it needs to conduct pre-clinical trials and clinical trials with human subjects due to its collaborative relationship with the Kaunas Clinics and the Kaunas Clinical Hospital. It is often the case that companies contact LSMU about ideas for developing medical devices, dietary supplements and other functional food products. LSMU can offer them a complete trial cycle: from molecular trials and animal trials to all stages of clinical trials on human subjects.

“We are constantly fielding various enquiries from companies,” – says head of the LSMU Development Department, Laima Matusevičienė, “Currently, developing all kinds of health-related devices and equipment is very popular both in the global market among established manufacturers and among young startups. To entrepreneurs who have ideas in this field, we recommend getting in touch with LSMU researchers at the earliest possible stage because if you don’t have the specific knowledge necessary for your endeavour, things can get complicated and maybe even veer off into the pointless. You need to know when to measure or assess certain human parameters and when to measure and assess others. Poorly selected criteria will then have to be replaced and that can mean great financial losses.”

LSMU can offer a complete trial cycle: from molecular trials and animal trials to all stages of clinical trials on human subjects.

Also acting as an intermediary between science and business is the KTU National Innovation and Business Centre – it specialises in commercialising scientific inventions and involving businesses in scientific projects. The manager of technology transfer projects at KTU, Robertas Armonaitis is responsible for commercialising the fruits of the university’s research and represents several KTU subdivisions involved in the development of biomedical technology. He refers to the example of Professor Vaidotas Marozas, who closely collaborates with researchers from LSMU, Vilnius University and the business sector to create various technologies for observing human health conditions. They will aid doctors in making more accurate assessments of secondary thromboembolic stroke risk and warn patients undergoing haemodialysis about life-threatening conditions. The technology is based on non-invasive sensor systems that do not disrupt the patient’s life and smart biosignal processing.

The Health Telematics Science Institute, led by Professor Ragauskas, developed the first non-invasive intracranial pressure meter in the world. VittaMed, the company that was founded for the purpose of developing the product, has attracted 10 million dollars in investment funding over the past several years. Patented in the USA and the EU, the technology caught the attention of scientists and researchers at NASA. This unique Lithuanian-made device is now used to conduct intracranial pressure tests on astronauts and neurological patients.

In yet another KTU subdivision, the Professor Kazimieras Baršauskas Ultrasound Research Institute, the focus of professor Renaldas Raišutis’ team of scientists is the field of non-invasive ultrasound testing. Ultrasound is used to examine various tissue structures and damage. In the area of interdisciplinary research, the team works with a group of dermatologists led by Professor Skaidra Valiukevičienė from LSMU on developing innovative technology for the purpose of automatically identifying and assessing skin as well as surface tissue tumours, and with a group of pharmacologists led by Professor Vilma Petrikaitė on developing ultrasound technology for effectively injecting anticancer drugs into tumour-damaged cell formations.

“The technology Professor Raišutis develops is also relevant to Lithuanian businesses. He is in charge of a joint technology development project driven by KTU and Softneta, a company that specialises in software and technology for operating rooms,” – elaborates Armonaitis.

The KTU Material Science Institute, headed by Professor Sigitas Tamulevičius, develops nanocomposite coatings with silver nanoparticles which have antimicrobial properties. In cooperation with scientists from LSMU, the coating technology was used to create the prototype for a smart band-aid.

Startups target foreign markets

One of the directions the KTU National Innovation and Business Centre is focusing its efforts on is the development of young business and mentorship for startups. Medical technology is one of the top priorities for developing young business. For example, the company Fidens, founded by KTU student Mantas Venslauskas PhD and based in the Kaunas Science and Technology Park, has partnered with LSMU to develop several products related to improving blood circulation.

“One version of the device is dedicated to reducing hand tremors for patients suffering from essential tremor, the other is dedicated to reducing rheumatoid arthritis-induced morning stiffness,” explains Venslauskas, “The first stages of development began during my doctoral studies, and once Fidens was founded, we developed the final prototype for the ViLim Ball. Clinical trials will begin late February to early March, and then we will proceed to getting the medical device certified.”

For patients suffering from asthma, help comes in the shape of Breath Count, a device developed by Segfoltas – another company headed by a KTU student, this time Povilas Sidaravičius. The palm-sized lung function monitor allows the patient to monitor their condition and avoid asthma attacks. Data received from the patient exhaling into the device is transferred via a wire free connection to the patient’s smart phone and then processed by the app. This data is also useful to the patient’s attending physician.

The founder of Abili dr. Aurelijus Domeika develops innovative equipment for testing and training balancing ability as well as movement. One such piece of equipment, the Abili Balance Trainer, is an unstable platform designed for use as a tool in training and rehabilitation. It also works as a preventive instrument, reducing the risk of falling in older patients as well as lower back pain. The Trainer’s accompanying app, Abili Balance Analyzer, will guide users through the training process and allow them to test the level of their balancing ability. Abili equipment is already being used by innovative kinesiotherapists and Olympians. The Lithuanian product is also being used to test and train athletes abroad.

With the “OPEN R&D Lithuania” brand

“Lithuania is a small, but big opportunities country. In order to increase awareness about our work as well as our competitiveness, and to present Lithuania as an attractive and dynamic region in the market of research, technology and innovation, we created the “OPEN R&D Lithuania” brand to represent our country’s scientific potential. It allows our universities and institutes to gain greater visibility as members of the same network in the international context,” says “OPEN R&D” Lithuania facilitator Martynas Survilas, responsible for running the Contact Centre.

Founded in 2014, the “OPEN R&D Lithuania” network is coordinated by the Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology (MITA). Members of the network – universities, scientific research institutes, science and technology parks and open-access centres – provide more than 2.5 thousand different services in the fields of engineering, IT, biomedicine and biotechnology, material science, physics and chemical technology, natural resources and agriculture. They are involved in developing new products based on the very latest scientific research. Employees of member organisations are given access to available equipment. Training events and professional consultation is provided to address all aspects of scientific research, development and transfer of technology and innovation. New technology is created and existing technology is developed further. Research, experiments, analysis and various measurements are conducted. Prototypes are developed and manufactured.

Last year, in order to make it easier for businesses to find their way through the myriad R&D services available and to select what best suits their needs, MITA set up the “OPEN R&D Lithuania” Contact Centre. It helps companies find the shortest route to a suitable research partner, gather information about where they can order the services they need and set up individual meetings. An emailed enquiry is enough to solicit an answer as to where a business should refer to next. The contact centre will help businesses get in touch with the right people and, if necessary, get them interested and convince them to become partners.

Source: Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology (MITA)

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