By Pete Singer
Many new innovations were discussed at imec’s U.S. International Technology Forum (ITF) on Monday at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, including quantum computing, artificial intelligence, sub-3nm logic, memory computing, solid-state batteries, EUV, RF and photonics, but perhaps the most interesting was new technology that enables human cells, tissues and organs to be grown and analyzed on-chip.
After an introduction by SEMI President Ajit Monacha – who said he believes the semiconductor industry will reach $1 trillion in market size by 2030 (“there’s no shortage of killer applications,” he said) — Luc Van den hove, president and CEO of imec, kicked off the afternoon session speaking about many projects underway that bring leading microelectronics technologies to bear on today’s looming healthcare crisis. “We all live longer than ever before and that’s fantastic,” he said. “But by living longer we also spend a longer part of our life being ill. What we need is a shift from extending lifespan to extending healthspan. What we need is to find ways to cure and prevent some of these diseases like cancer, like heart diseases and especially dementia.”
Today, drug development is so time-consuming and costly, is because of the insufficiency of the existing methodologies for drug screening assays. These current assays are based on poor cell models that limit the quality of the resulting data, and result in inadequate biological relevance. Additionally, there is a lack of spatial resolution of the assays, resulting in the inability to screen single cells in a cell culture. “It is rather slow, it is quite labor intensive and it provides limited information,” Van den hove said. “With our semiconductor platform we have developed recently a multi-electrode array (MEA) chip on which we can grow cells, in which we can grow tissue and organs. We can monitor processes that are happening within the cells or between the cells during massive drug testing.”
The MEA (see Figure) packs 16,384 electrodes, distributed over 16 wells, and offers multiparametric analysis. Each of the 1,024 electrodes in a well can detect intracellular action potentials, aside from the traditional extracellular signals. Further, imec’s chip is patterned with microstructures to allow for a structured cell growth mimicking a specific organ.
Earlier this year, in May at imec’s ITF forum in Europe, Veerle Reumers, project leader at imec, explained how the MEA works: “By using grooves, heart cells can for example grow into a more heart-like tissue. In this way, we fabricate miniature hearts-on-a-chip, making it possible to test the effect of drugs in a more biologically relevant context. Imec’s organ-on-chip platform is the first system that enables on-chip multi-well assays, which means that you can perform different experiments or – in other words – analyze different compounds, in parallel on a single chip,” he explained. “This is a considerable increase in throughput compared to current single-well MEAs and we aim to further increase the throughput by adding more wells in a system.”
Van den hove said they have been testing the chip. “The beauty of the semiconductor platform is that we can, because of the miniaturization capability, parallelize an enormous amount of this testing and accelerate drug testing. We can measure what we never measured before, at speeds that you couldn’t think of before.”
He added that imec recently embarked on a new initiative aimed to cure dementia called Mission Lucidity. “Together with some of our clinical biomedical research teams, we are on a mission to decode dementia, to develop a cure to prevent this disease,” he said.
The MEA will be one tool used in the initiative, but also coming into play will be the groups neuroprobes — which Van den hove said are among the world’s most advanced probes and are being used by nearly all the leading neuroscience research teams – along with next generation wearables. “By combining these tools, we want to better understand the processes that are happening in the brain. We can measure those processes with much higher resolution than what could be done before. This may be able to detect the onset disease earlier on. By administering the right medication earlier, we hope to be able to prevent the disease from further progressing,” he said.