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Innovative technology offers remedy for rising health care costs

Enabling technologies will change the face of what is possible, particularly in the area of health care, where rising costs have become a national epidemic.

"Continuing pressure to reduce health care costs will likely lead to actions that compromise quality or reduce access to health care unless new technology is introduced that can reduce costs while at the same time achieve desired improvements in access and outcomes," said Bobi Garrett, Medical Technology manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "The Laboratory is working on technologies that have significant potential to help reduce cost and improve effectiveness and accessibility of health care."

Technology development is focused on selective sensors and imaging systems that provide real-time, minimally invasive diagnostics; therapeutics; biomaterials that aid in healing, restore lost function, or deliver therapeutic agents; and medical information management to support physician diagnoses and patient education.

researchers with sensor

The next generation of sensor technology

A new method of breath analysis based on ultra-sensitive laser spectroscopy is being developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The method may some day be used to easily and quickly detect stomach and other internal disorders.

The Laboratory is enhancing devices that sense and diagnose health problems. "Rapid, accurate, and cost-effective diagnosis is the first requirement for medical treatment," Pacific Northwest medical technology Manager Bobi Garrett said. "Early diagnosis is the key to effective disease management. Ultimately, having a suite of inexpensive diagnostic tools will support shifting our focus from downstream treatment to health maintenance or wellness."

Researchers are developing a breath analysis system that someday may be used to detect a variety of disorders quickly and inexpensively. The system is based on ultra-sensitive laser spectroscopy. The byproducts of metabolic processes in the exhaled breath are quickly measured by the laser spectrometer, making it easy to confirm the presence of a disease.

researcher with needle

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed ceramic/polymer composites as bone filler that harden once placed in the physiological environment.

A new generation of materials

Pacific Northwest is developing materials that will aid in healing, eliminate undesired physiological responses, and replicate the function of normal tissues. "Long-lasting implants that can attach permanently to bone could save many patients the pain, risk, and expense of undergoing repeat surgeries," said Bobi Garrett. "We're researching new technologies and materials that, together, promise to make bone, joint, and tooth implants almost as good as nature's own version."

One of the Laboratory's most exciting efforts in biomaterial research involves a new way to produce bioactive and porous metal coatings for total joint replacement. The porous metal creates tiny, interlocking pores on the surface of the orthopedic implant, providing a substrate for bone to grow into the bone implant. While the porous metal coating provides a mechanical interlock, there remains a problem of poor bonding between bone and the metal implant. Our bioactive coating technique provides a superior surface that promotes bone growth and adhesion to prosthesis surfaces.

Managing medical information

An estimated 45 cents of every health care dollar is spent in information management. This high cost is due to many factors, including duplication of diagnostic tests, inefficiencies in information management, and use of outdated health care delivery processes. The Laboratory is providing new technologies to reduce the cost of medical information access and analysis and is developing new tools that provide computer-aided diagnostic assistance.

Researchers, for example, are developing an integrated information system for cancer demographics, prevention, detection, and education for patients and health care providers. The Cancer Management Information system contains a cancer education and demographics kiosk, a tracking and surveillance database, and a physician workstation.

Innovative medical technology provided by Pacific Northwest, while not the total cure, will certainly be part of the remedy for the nation's rising health care costs.

Delivery of therapeutics

Once disease or injury is detected, targeted therapeutic agents are needed to stabilize, repair, or reverse the damage. At Pacific Northwest, researchers are developing therapeutic systems that localize the delivery of therapeutics at the site where it is needed most. For example, researchers are developing processing methods for a new class of isotopes, alpha emitters such as bismuth-213 and radium-223, that show promise for more effective treatment of cancer. When attached to an antibody, the radioisotope selectively delivers its lethal radiation dose to the cancer cells, while sparing normal tissues close to the tumor region.

Also under way is development of a new approach to deliver radionuclides using stimuli sensitive polymeric gels. These gels are mixed with the radionuclides; then the polymer solution is injected directly into a tumor, where the solution forms a stable solid gel. The radionuclide stays at the site where it is needed most and does not harm surrounding tissue.

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