National / Science & Health

'Smart plastics' and new devices help Japan age gracefully

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

Mitsuhiro Ebara believes plastic sheets called “smart polymers” may one day prove to be a cheap solution to curing cancer.

Cancer is known to respond better to the simultaneous use of hyperthermia and chemotherapy, and Ebara, a researcher at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, is working with his fellow researchers to develop technology using smart polymers, or plastics that respond to changes in the environment, such as temperature, pH, light and magnetic fields, to treat various diseases.

Using the polymers, which he hopes would be available even in developing countries, Ebara wants to create a medical technology that would be “accessible to anyone, anytime and anywhere,” replacing costly immunotherapy drugs like Opdivo with cheap materials like the plastics commonly found in ¥100 shops.

Like Ebara, researchers and startups in this renowned technology hub are tuning their technologies in medical and nursing care to cater to the nation’s graying society.

There are unlimited variations to smart polymers Ebara said. For instance, sugar-responsive polymers become soluble when mixed with sugar, meaning it can be used for diabetes treatment, while toxin-responsive polymers can be used to soak up certain toxins.

To treat cancer, doctors in this field first operate to remove tumors and other visible signs of the disease before applying a heat-responsive smart polymer sheet containing cancer-fighting drugs and magnetic nanoparticles directly to the affected area.

Doctors then use a device that produces a magnetic field to heat the particles, causing the sheet to contract and squeeze out the drug.

In a clinical test on mice, once-a-week 15-minute treatments applied over two months shrank lung cancer tumors to less than a tenth of their original size, according to NIMS.

Ebara expects his polymer method to double the effect that thermotherapy and chemotherapy have on specific spots.

The next step, he said, is to determine “how many cancer cells we can kill through the method.”

Swallowing solution

In a nation in which more than a fourth of the population is 65 or older, there is increasing demand for new technologies to help care for the elderly.

And University of Tsukuba spinoff Plimes Inc. is one company that has developed a unique device to measure swallowing ability — an important factor in preventing seniors from catching aspiration pneumonia.

During a media tour in May, the startup’s chief communications officer Atsushi Nitasaka displayed a photo of actual food served to seniors with weak swallowing ability at a nursing home — blobs of liquified sushi, visually unappealing and tasteless.

Pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death in Japan and 70 percent of the cases involving seniors are said to be caused by dysphagia, or swallowing difficulties. Dysphagia can accidentally allow food to pass into the windpipe and lungs instead of the esophagus, spreading bacteria.

“It’s a serious problem for this graying Japanese society,” Nitasaka contended.

By using a device called Gokuri, caretakers can gauge swallowing ability to figure out the appropriate texture of food to provide. This can potentially widen the food menu for patients beyond purees without causing aspiration pneumonia.

Gokuri is placed around the neck to record swallowing sounds through a microphone. The data is recorded on a smartphone app that then uses artificial intelligence to assess the patient’s swallowing ability. The device has a 97.3 percent accuracy rate, Nitasaka claimed.

The company launched the ¥100,000 product on a limited basis in April 2018 to collect trial data from partners across Japan, Nitasaka said. Plimes aims to widen Gokuri’s domestic release and market it overseas as well.

Seele, a nursing home in Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, started using Gokuri months ago. Manager Takuji Yamanaka said that “by modifying the food types for individuals according to their swallowing ability, the facility’s residents have become much less likely to be hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia.”

“We want to build a society where seniors enjoy food and live healthy,” Plimes’ Nitasaka said.

Remote control wheelchairs

Another technology from Tsukuba has been developed to reduce the workload of caregivers at nursing homes, who must push elderly residents in wheelchairs to their dining rooms for every meal or to the living room for recreation.

Developed by a research team overseen by media artist Yoichi Ochiai of the Digital Nature Group at the University of Tsukuba, the system, dubbed Telewheelchair, allows helpers to remotely control the wheelchair via a head-mounted display.

Caregivers can also monitor the surroundings through video footage transmitted wirelessly from an omnidirectional camera on the back of the wheelchair. The system is still in the experimental stage.

To mitigate the risk of accidents being caused by transmission delays, the wheelchair stops when it detects an approaching person.

With the use of augmented reality markers, caregivers can operate multiple wheelchairs simultaneously, lining them up toward the same destination.

Challenges ahead

However unique their technologies are, many companies face legal barriers and financing problems, said Norimasa Fujii, a senior researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc.’s health care and wellness division.

For instance, Plimes is struggling to obtain permission to sell its product as “medical equipment” under Japanese law — a designation that has a strong public appeal.

Fujii said amassing the data needed to prove an innovative product is safe and effective requires “cost and time” if one truly wants to receive the coveted credential.

Raising funds can pose another stumbling block.

According to Fujii, the long time it usually takes medical companies to commercialize their products, compared to their information technology counterparts, can scare off investors.

For nursing care devices, he said, the discouraging factor for investors could be the “relatively slow pace of market growth.” Convincing nursing homes, which tend to lack financial leeway, to buy new products is also a challenge.

Still, Fujii said high-quality manufacturing and the ability to turn concepts into products are among the technological advantages Japan has against its international competitors in the medical and nursing care sectors.

But devising a concept is a different skill in itself. For instance, Fujii pointed out that products with excessively high specifications, which can jack up prices, may not be what consumers want.

“They need to enhance their product concept designing capability, which is a common problem among Japanese businesses as a whole,” Fujii said.

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