New manufacturing approaches to affordable healthcare

Posted on 16 Jan 2023 by The Manufacturer

IfM research is exploring how important diagnostics and medical devices can be made more accessible to low- and middle-income countries.

Manufacturing healthcare products, like sensors and sensitive diagnostic tests, can be complicated and expensive, making them less accessible to health systems with fewer resources.

At the University of Cambridge, Professor Ronan Daly’s team in the Fluids in Advanced Manufacturing group at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), has teamed up with Professor Lisa Hall in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology to explore how to make tests more affordable and accessible. They are looking at ways to reduce the complexity of the materials used and how the devices are manufactured, as well as how to manufacture products closer to users, with rapid upscaling and downscaling driven by need.

“Our approach is to look at these products and work with partners in different locations to consider local manufacturing capabilities and materials, and how the manufacturing processes can be adapted to work with available, greener products. By making these devices (for example, diagnostics like lateral flow tests) close to the user and then only needing to distribute locally, we can make them less expensive and thus available to a wider range of people and health systems,” explained Ronan.

One example is biosensors. Normally, these require many steps of biosynthesis or protein manufacture, the transferring and patterning of materials, and designing the process of cell signalling. Lisa’s team has built a capability to compress multiple steps into a single process, creating a multifunctional product that can be incorporated straight into a device for disease diagnostics.

“From there, we’re working out how to use that process with an affordable technology,” explained Ronan. “Is it with 3D printing, injection moulding or lamination? What are the simple steps to turn it into a device that is still as accurate and reliable as the earlier, more expensive version? So, we’re not compromising on use or capability, but finding affordable ways of doing it.”

IfM research is exploring how important diagnostics and medical devices can be made more accessible to low- and middle-income countries

Adapting healthcare products so they can be manufactured locally could make them less expensive and more widely available

Lower cost medical devices

Lisa’s team is leading a project where IfM is an integral part, working with the University of Santo Tomas and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines to examine how synthetic biology can help to create lower cost medical devices.

“Many medical devices work by using proteins that can detect the presence of a targeted disease. We’re working together, looking at how we can use bacteria to create multifunctional proteins, in a process that does not use a lot of energy, is easy to carry out, and gives a product that not only detects a targeted disease but also has an embedded optical signal to let you know that it has been made correctly,” added Ronan.

“It is all produced in a simple vessel, where the proteins are expressed, and engineered with inbuilt colours to show that you have made it to the correct protein. It’s really a beautiful thing, and it tells us that it’s working.”

The team has been targeting the detection of malaria, dengue, leptospirosis and more recently, COVID-19, looking at the sensor development and at economic models to demonstrate a strong argument for investment.

“We are now looking to take that technique and approach and apply it to more applications and turn them into real devices,” said Ronan.

Affordability by adapting existing technologies

Another approach to making healthcare affordable is to identify existing technologies that can easily be changed to deliver a diagnostic or therapeutic effect. One possibility that the team is exploring is using touchscreens, found on widely available mobile phones, to do more diagnostic work.

“One method is making it manufacturable at the right place, while another is trying to find what equipment and tools already exist at these locations, that we can then use. And that was what led us to touchscreens,” said Ronan.

“The penetration into the market of touchscreens in low- and middle-income countries is just phenomenal, and they’ve got built-in computational power. They’ve got communications. You can coordinate data and send it to whoever needs to interpret it.

“We are at a very early stage of research for this technology and we are looking at the steps we need to take that would make this possible. This is an example of a potentially affordable solution that would make these much more widely available.”

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Key takeaways:

  • Adapting healthcare products so they can be manufactured locally could make them less expensive and more widely available
  • One method of adaptation involves incorporating new processes, like synthetic biology, into existing medical devices
  • Another method draws upon existing, widely available technology, like touchscreens on mobile phones, and adapts it for medical use

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