A unique fibre-optic catheter with the potential to change the way doctors monitor some of the human body’s core functions is being prepared for commercial production in South Australia.
Developed by a team now based at the Medical Device Research Institute (MDRI) at Flinders University in Adelaide, the pressure-sensing catheter can record and characterise muscular activity inside the body to a level of detail previously not thought possible.
In fact, it was dubbed “the Hubble Telescope of gastroenterology” by one clinical expert when the concept was first unveiled in 2010.
“When Associate Professor Phil Dinning presented our findings to a conference in London the audience actually gasped,” said biomedical engineer Professor John Arkwright.
At the same time as building the concept we had to build the jigs and fixtures to make it. I think that was one of our biggest advantages.
The data A/Prof Dinning unveiled was so comprehensive compared with what conventional catheters could offer that it provided new insights into the colon’s role in the gastrointestinal system.
“It showed that activity in the colon was dramatically more complex than had been seen before,” Arkwright said. “And it showed that the previous technology was simply not up to the mark.”
Four years later, a more advanced version of the catheter attracted great interest at two recent medical devices trade shows in Europe, and Prof Arkwright has since fielded calls from companies in Europe, Asia and the US.
The research team – which includes specialists from Flinders University, Flinders Medical Centre (FMC), the CSIRO and Queensland’s Griffith University – also won the highest award at last month’s 2014 Australian Engineering Excellence Awards.
They had previously won the ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology in 2011.
In this case, the innovation is the use of fibre-optic cables, which allow sensors to be placed just one centimetre apart along a catheter without it becoming too bulky and thus inflexible. Traditional colonic catheters have sensors 10 centimetres or more apart, leaving large information gaps.
“With optical fibre we can use the optical spectrum to our benefit,” Prof Arkwright said. “Instead of using separate wires or fibres to monitor in different locations we can use different colours of light. Along a single fibre you can monitor up to 36 discrete locations down the fibre and measure the pressure or temperature.”
Prof Arkwright, then at the CSIRO, developed the original concept for use in the oesophagus, following an approach from Adelaide’s Women’s & Children’s Hospital in 2005 in relation to a specific problem in newborn babies.
He quickly understood its broader potential, however, and began developing a larger catheter for use by gastroenterologists after teaming up with A/Prof Dinning, who has since moved from Sydney’s St George Hospital to FMC. Motility disorders (movement of material through the gut) are a significant problem in adults, affecting up to 30 percent of the population.
In the past year the research has expanded to examine the small bowel, in part through a collaboration with KULeuven in Belgium, one of Europe’s largest teaching hospitals. Prof Arkwright describes the early results as “spectacular”.
While he and his colleagues are not the only researchers working with fibre optics, he believes they are the most advanced and the only ones to have carried out in-vivo trials. They are also “manufacturing ready”.
“At the same time as building the concept we had to build the jigs and fixtures to make it,” Prof Arkwright said. “I think that was one of our biggest advantages.
“What we have now is a range of product variations – colon, small bowel, measuring pressure under bandages – all based on the same fundamental technology with tweaks.”
Now based in the MDRI on the Flinders University campus, Prof Arkwright is exploring production options in South Australia, including supplying core components to companies around the world for inclusion in medical equipment.
As a researcher, he also is continuing to explore the concept’s potential.
“It’s not just catheters. Fibre optics could be used anywhere that you need to do distributed measurement – urology, gynaecology, even cardiac or intracranial monitoring.”