photo: robin hodgkinson
The painful and invasive nature of many medical tests and procedures can be pretty frightening when you have a health concern. Then there’s the cost—for the uninsured, paying the bill can be as painful as the procedure itself. And sometimes, in the end, all these tests prove unnecessary or the results are inconclusive.
That’s something Professor Ahmed Al-Jumaily and his team of postgraduate students at AUT University are hoping to change. The Institute for Biomedical Technologies (IBTec), directed by Al-Jumaily, is working to develop cheaper, easier, less invasive methods for screening for and treating a number of common illnesses and conditions.
Among the conditions they’re focusing on are cardiovascular disease (accounting for nearly 40 percent of all deaths in New Zealand), obstructive sleep apnoea, asthma (New Zealand has one of the highest rates in the world), respiratory distress syndrome and rhinosinusitis. IBTec researches in three main areas: respiratory therapy, cardiovascular diagnostics and biomedical materials.
“The institute basically focuses on vibration, acoustics, system dynamics and controls as applied to biomedical applications, creating systems to develop devices and diagnostic tools to treat and detect disease,” says Professor Al-Jumaily.
Among the potential applications are techniques to relax muscles in the airways during an asthma attack.
“At the moment, asthma sufferers use a lot of medications, which have various side effects. Our goal is to minimise that need for medication by incorporating physical activities, such as vibration to relax the airway muscles and ease congestion during an asthma attack. Experimental testing on isolated live tissues has shown that those vibration techniques can reduce the need for medication.”
Professor Al-Jumaily has been working on this research for the past nine years in association with international collaborators such as the Mayo College of Medicine. While clinical trials have yet to begin, the eventual delivery device would be similar to a nebuliser but without the need for drugs.
IBTec is also using acoustic principles in its work with Pulsecor Ltd, a New Zealand-owned medical device developer, to help diagnose arterial disease. Together they have already created a simple-to-use cuff device to detect arterial hardness. Now Professor Al-Jumaily is conducting research using computational fluid dynamics to understand changes in the acoustic waves of the cardiovascular system, which could indicate increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The aim is to reduce the need for invasive and risky procedures such as catheterisation, or expensive and complicated techniques such as MRI. The creation of an early detection device would enable a GP or specialist to assess the need for further, more comprehensive tests before a patient experiences a health crisis.
Another area of research for IBTec is its development of biomedical materials. These include special techniques for micro-needle technologies. Extracting liquid from the body using needles can be time-consuming and painful for some people, so Professor Al-Jumaily’s team is developing porous micro needles that are simply placed on the surface of the body and start delivering blood. They’re particularly good for people with burns, he says, as there’s no need to insert anything into the body.
IBTec’s successful 12-year partnership with Fisher & Paykel Healthcare has resulted in important developments on CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) and Bubble CPAP devices. The latter helps premature babies with respiratory distress syndrome to breathe without the need for mechanical ventilation, and is now also used to treat asthma and bronchitis in children. The unique system uses bubbles to create pressure oscillation, causing the lungs to vibrate and relax.
Al-Jumaily’s team is also collaborating with numerous international research units, medical and mechanical engineering schools, as well as key organisations in the biomedical community. However, he believes that excellent work is being done here in New Zealand and that this country has the talent and experience to make the development and manufacture of medical devices one of our specialist industries.
“We’re a small country so we can’t hope to be in competition with big companies manufacturing planes or motor vehicles, but medical devices are small and don’t require a lot of sophisticated technology. IBTec is a very dynamic institute and we have an excellent reputation locally and internationally. Plus we already have one of the leading medical device manufacturers in the world— Fisher & Paykel.”