Germany promotes innovative use of photonics in healthcare

The German government is continuing its initiative to promote the development of innovative medical system solutions. Recently it released a directive for Photonic System Solutions for Medicine and Biotechnology and a call for funding applications for joint projects.

Female doctor working on futuristic transparent monitor on blue background
© svetikd

In this funding program administered by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), companies, universities and non-academic research institutions are invited to work cooperatively and closely on joint photonics projects. The interdisciplinary ventures to be funded are aimed at speeding the transfer of technology from research to application.

The BMBF has identified photonics as a technology that holds great potential for comprehensive system approaches in medicine and affordable healthcare. It says many medical and biotechnological processes require broad system solutions that combine therapeutic and diagnostic processes. These solutions may also demand application of more than one technology, such as nanotechnology or signal processing, as well as the rapid transmission of enormous amounts of data.

Minimally invasive procedures and rapid gathering of data – such as vital signs – from living organisms are examples of photonics applications, says the BMBF. It says photonics can increase the speed at which measurements are taken and improve the selectivity and sensitivity of these processes. This is because photonics procedures are contact-free, flexible and extremely precise, says the ministry. The technology also has the potential to enable practitioners to assess chemical compositions and the concentration of specific inorganic and organic particles. The BMBF sees the technology providing the basis for a number of procedures, including measurement techniques for biotechnology, high-resolution microscopy, endoscopy, laser surgery and medical, three-dimensional printing.

The identification of photonics' potential for improving medical care has placed photonics research and development within the German government's High-Tech Strategy and led to its classification under the BMBF program Photonics Research Germany.

Germany, say industry observers, heads the field in photonics research aimed at fostering industrial application. In a recent interview with Photonics Spectra magazine, the president of the Optical Society of America and the head of the US National Photonics Initiative Steering Committee Allan Willner said, "Germany is leading the way, for example, with the Fraunhofer Institutes. They’ve been at this for a while, with public-private institutes that encourage and facilitate moving innovation into manufacturing. They get it." He later added, "You have to have both the push from educators and the pull from industry. And I think Germany gets it right; there is the concept there that manufacturing technicians can be … highly valued expert[s]."

The invitation for project submissions says that participation of small and middle-sized firms (SME) is expressly desired and will be considered in the assessment of funding eligibility. It also notes that projects will only be eligible for funding if they include at least one company or more and that projects should take the entire value production chain into consideration. Applications must be submitted by the end of March.

In the last year alone, the BMBF spent around EUR 238 million to foster research into health and the healthcare industry, reflecting the country's commitment to further innovation in healthcare.