Shu Yang, senior associate and patent attorney and Sheri Jeyakumar, associate at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogerscomment on the Internet of Bodies and the effects it had on medtech.
The availability of more physical data has contributed to the medtech boom, as innovators harness the power of biosensors to monitor specific health conditions, and spot early warning signs.
Known as the Internet of Bodies (IoB), the integration of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and medical care has led to a surge in patent applications for connected medical devices. Industry trends show that this rapid growth is set to continue – in 2020, 14,122 new European patent applications were filed for medical technology innovations overall, and this increased to 15,321 new applications in 2021.
Many of these devices are designed to be worn, such as Fitbit, Garmin and Whoop. However, others are for internal use, and can be ingested or implanted, surgically or otherwise. Connected to the internet, these interoperable devices use data from biosensors to detect an individual’s vital signs or changes in their physiological responses.
Behind the demand for IoB devices is a growing interest in personalized medicine, which aims to tailor disease prevention and treatment to an individual’s genetics, as well as their environmental and lifestyle factors. Consumers have a natural interest in collecting data about their body and learning more about their personal health. From a technological standpoint, advances in the miniaturization of electronics have also made it possible to develop smaller devices that are more portable or suitable for internal use.
IoB devices take many forms, however, they are perhaps best known as wearables to monitor personal fitness. Other types of IoB device can be used to assist individuals with specific problems related to their sleep or walking, or to monitor a specific long-term health condition, such as heart disease or diabetes. Some IoB devices are used by clinicians, such as VivaLNK’s thermometer and dashboard which monitors a patient’s temperature and sends an alert if it becomes raised, whereas some are implanted surgically, such as pacemakers and cochlear implants.
With many more IoB devices expected to enter the market, innovators should ensure they are protecting their inventions at an early stage to minimize the risk of early disclosure and secure exclusivity rights ahead of their competitors. They should also keep a close watch on the market to identify areas of opportunity or threats that could undermine the commercial value of their activities. Once a patent has been granted, they should also be prepared to enforce their rights where necessary, to protect their commercial position.
In a recent example of IoB tech innovation for internal use, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed an ingestible pill, made from hydrogel with a sensor attached, that stays in the stomach for an extended period of time. The device can be used to spot changes and track gastrointestinal temperature.
Another example of an IoB device for internal use is an electronic gas-sensing capsule, capable of measuring gases in the gut. Developed by engineers at Australia’s RMIT University and Atmo Biosciences, the device can be used to detect and measure gaseous biomarkers and aid the diagnosis of gut disorders.
Google has patented technology for smart contact lenses that contain sensors and microcircuits. While they look much like a standard contact lens, they can detect changes in the eye or eye fluid to aid the diagnosis of conditions that might require medical intervention.
Other IoB innovators are focused on the dynamic area of neurocomputing. For example, Synchron is developing implantable brain computer interface technology, which could help improve outcomes for patients with paralysis. Clinical trials are underway in Australia to determine whether patients can control digital devices through the power of thought.
Growing demand for connected medical technologies is a significant commercial opportunity, but IoB innovators could face challenges when preparing to commercialize their technologies. For example, computer-based innovations must demonstrate a technical effect to be eligible for patent protection in Europe and it may be advantageous to patent apparatus too. With so much commercial opportunity at stake, innovators should ensure they have an IP strategy in place at an early stage.