Into New Territory
Japan's Ministry of Economy forecasts that the global market for regenerative medicine will be worth more than 450 billion dollars by 2050. People who work in non-medical industries are finding new ways to break into the business.
Tokyo Women's Medical University is conducting research in regenerative medicine.
A "cell sheet" is made of a vast number of artificially cultivated cells. The sheet is applied to the affected area of a patient to repair damaged tissues and organs.
But the cell sheet is extremely thin, and it's difficult to handle with traditional medical tools like tweezers. "When a sheet crumbles and is transplanted in a messy lump, some of the cells die and we lose them," says Professor Tatsuya Shimizu.
The researchers sought help from Furukawakikou, a company with 12 employees that makes devices to handle food products precisely and delicately.
One machine can move eggs without changing their shape. The company teamed up with Osaka University's engineering department to create a smaller version to manipulate thin cell sheets.
The machine makes it easy to work with semi-liquid substances like ketchup. A plate wrapped around with a sheet rolls things up like a conveyer belt. The sheet is coated with Teflon, so things don't stick to it.
Researchers working in the field of regenerative medicine now use the device more and more. Furukawakikou President Hiroyasu Furukawa says he's now planning to expand his business outside Japan.
Meanwhile, electronics giant Sony is relying on its own technology to break into the new field.
The company developed a machine capable of analyzing as many as 10,000 cells per second, based on Blu-ray disc technology.
Blu-ray systems project blue semiconductor laser rays onto a disk that rotates at high speed to read microscopic pieces of information.
In the cell analyzer, a device plays the role of a Blu-ray disc. It contains pathways that are one thousandth of a millimeter in width.
Cells are channeled through these pathways at high speed while laser rays are applied. The analyzer detects the types and numbers of cells in the solution, and can also collect a specific type of cell.
In a year and a half since its launch, the analyzer has become the most popular product of its kind in Japan, capturing a market share of 40 percent. The analyzer is one third the size of similar products made by US firms, and it's also 50 percent cheaper.
"We've been able to develop a user-friendly product by leveraging our technologies in consumer electronics," says Koichi Tsukihara from Sony's Life Science Business Division. The company is now marketing the machine across the world.
As the market for regenerative medicine continues expanding, the increasing participation of non-medical firms is expected to speed up technological development even further.