Inventing a healthier future

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Inventing a healthier future: Gaining a patent is an important step for companies that want to turn an idea into an actual product; ©European Patent Office

Innovation in medical technologies is booming. That is why MEDICA attracts such huge audiences each year, and an increasing number of exhibitors. New technologies are combining material science, electronics, engineering and biochemistry. With more of us living longer, the market for healthcare appliances has ever greater potential.

Medical technology was yet again the largest area for patent applications filed at the European Patent Office (EPO) in 2014, up 3.2 percent on 2013 to 11,124. Other leading fields, such as digital communications and computing technology, both saw around 10,000 applications last year according to their Annual Report 2014. Looking at related fields: Biotechnology applications, despite a sudden increase of 12 percent on 2013 (bucking the long-term stagnation over the last decade), remained at around the 6,000 mark, with figures for pharmaceutical applications decreasing by 5.4 percent to 5,270.

Looking at the ten-year trend, steady and continued growth in patenting activity in medical technology can be seen. This would seem to suggest that R&D activity in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals struggles to keep pace with medical technologies and that healthcare developers are switching their focus in some areas to devices and equipment - for both diagnosis and therapy - in preference to medicines or biochemistry. This is understandable given the costs of bringing a new drug to market, compared with the costs for a new device.

Companies are becoming more discerning in what they patent and when. They need to be sure of the business case for each invention before investing thousands of euros in patent applications. But when they get it right, the patents can attract investment, cement licensing deals and secure market share. So a decline in patenting in a particular area is not necessarily indicative of a decline in innovation, but rather a more selective approach towards patenting.

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The EPO is able to counsel companies in numerous ways on their way to a successful patent; ©European Patent Office

Service to business

For businesses wanting to better understand their own technology market, the EPO offers free online databases that have significantly improved transparency. For example, the Espacenet database can be used to discover which technologies other companies are patenting, or to find new technology partners, suppliers and customers. The EPO’s collection includes over 90 million records from over 100 countries. Patent data is often overlooked by researchers who focus solely on academic journals - but many of the latest developments appear in patents but nowhere else!

The EPO's European Patent Register provides information on the status or progress of existing European patent applications. This is especially useful to companies planning to file an application. It is also possible to file observations on pending applications which a company can prove are not new or inventive. Patent Translate is another service offered by the EPO, which enables instant machine translation of the main texts of patent applications in Espacenet in 32 languages.

Obtaining a patent requires full disclosure of the invention, even though the application might be refused despite considerable costs spread over several years. To minimise these risks, most applicants start with an international patent application to defer the bulk of costs for two and a half years, whilst they refine their invention and test the market. The EPO can help here in several ways, such as providing high-quality search results within six months of receipt of a request, a written opinion on the patentability of the invention and an assessment of its merits. All of this arms applicants with the best information about the future of their application, potentially avoiding costly investments.


Heroes of invention

Through the annual European Inventor Award, the EPO shines a spotlight on the unsung heroes of the research laboratory who have created game-changing technologies. These inspirational scientists and engineers come from all technical disciplines, and it is surprising to see how many breakthroughs in medical technology have come from people without a medical background. Rather, they are often engineers, or inter-disciplinary teams with an array of skills, who have advanced healthcare. Here are four stories about the 2015 finalists.

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Laura van 't Veer - winner in 2015, inventor of a genetic test making individualised breast cancer treatment possible; ©European Patent Office

This gene-based tissue test marks a milestone in individualised medicine. It provides women in the early stage of breast cancer with a clear and reliable prognosis as to whether they have a high risk of recurrence or whether recovery is possible without chemotherapy and its attendant side-effects. Patients and their doctors can now make informed decisions early on about the most appropriate course of treatment, reducing by 20 to 30 percent the number of women who have to undergo chemotherapy. This ground-breaking invention could pave the way for more pertinent diagnostics in other forms of cancer.

Find out more about Laura van 't Veer
Hear Laura van 't Veer in her own words (link to YouTube)
Photo: An older male researcher in the lab

Ludwik Leibler - winner in 2015, inventor of self-healing polymers; ©European Patent Office

Vitrimers represent a breakthrough in the area of polymer research. This eco-friendly material can be deployed anywhere plastic is used, for example in aircraft construction, bicycle helmets and wind turbine blades. It opens up new opportunities in medical technology, making it possible to seal skin wounds, stop bleeding after resection of an organ and attach medical devices to tissue and organs without stitching – and all of this within minutes. Described as a "miracle material", this revolutionary invention has enormous potential in surgical practice.

Find out more about Ludwik Leibler
Hear Ludwik Leibler in his own words (link to YouTube)
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John Elvesjö and Mårten Skogö - finalists in 2015, inventors of a revolutionary eye-tracking system; ©European Patent Office

Controlling a computer with eye movements - this ground-breaking technology is capable of recognising the position and gaze point of the pupils and interpreting it in real time. This is possible with the aid of an infrared sensor in the screen that registers eye movements and the viewing direction of the user. Eye tracking opens up unprecedented possibilities for the interaction between humans and machines, returning the power of communication to people suffering from physical and mental disabilities. Apart from medical usage, other potential applications include marketing, medicine, gaming or the automotive industry.

Find out more about John Elvesjö and Mårten Skogö
Hear John Elvesjö and Mårten Skogö in their own words (link to YouTube)
Photo: Yound female researcher with a blood vial in hand

Elizabeth Holmes - finalist in 2015, inventor of a game-changing new procedure for blood tests and analyses; ©European Patent Office

Can a drop of blood change the world of healthcare? Elizabeth Holmes' revolutionary new procedure means that a simple finger prick is sufficient to produce enough blood for extensive testing. A wide range of analyses can then be performed on this miniscule quantity of blood – in just a few hours. The system is virtually painless and much more cost-effective than conventional methods. This diagnostic quantum leap has the potential to fundamentally change the healthcare market.

Find out more about Elizabeth Holmes
Hear Elizabeth Holmes in her own words (link to YouTube); Source: Jeremy Philpott, European Patent Office

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