The animal kingdom has fascinated man from the beginning of time. From the most minute organisms to undersea and land creatures that have perfectly evolved to adapt to their environments, we have looked to their perfection for guidance to create some of the most technologically advanced engineering feats that are being adopted in the rapidly growing fields of medical design and development.
This inspiration from nature, called biomimicry, has been inherent in overcoming a variety of design challenges. Early adopters were in areas like transportation and other commercial industries. For example, Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train created a loud boom when entering and leaving tunnels, disrupting residents and nature. Taking a cue from the Kingfisher, a fish-eating bird that can move almost soundlessly from air to water, designers retooled the nose of the train to mimic that of the Kingfisher’s beak, and the problem was solved. Another example is Shark Paint. Developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research (IFAM), the paint was inspired by the abrasive consistency of shark skin, which protects them from UV rays and minimizes drag. IFAM transferred this concept to paint, which can function under extreme weather fluctuations, UV radiation, and high speeds. Weight and fuel consumption are reduced as only a single layer of paint is required. This way, combined with its other attributes, Shark Paint is ideal for airplanes and sea-going vessels.
There are numerous examples of biomimicry approaches to achieve beauty, balance, and harmony. But how is this approach impacting the future of medical device designs for individual patient care and devices used in clinical settings?
Biomimicry Guidance for Biomimetic Innovation in Healthcare Devices
First, a definition of terms. Biomimicry and biomimetics are often used interchangeably but are not the same. Look at biomimicry from two perspectives: inspirational and design guidance, i.e., literal mimicry. The result of this literal mimicry is referred to as biomimetics or the natural intersection between biology and engineering.
The connection between biomimicry and medical device design may not be as evident for the healthcare industry as it should be, considering how close medical device design is to the organic intimacy of its context for use.
Regardless of one’s perspective of biomimicry, be it inspirational or for guidance, there are opportunities from which medical device designers and engineers can continue to benefit significantly. An example of inspirational biomimicry could be the observation that an electric fish generates an electronic field to detect the electronic fields of nearby prey. The process inspired the development of a catheter that can navigate through complex blood vessel pathways to minimize the need for fluoroscopic dyes and radiation.
Guidance-type biomimicry could be examining how light hits the unique coloring of a butterfly or peacock with blue, green, and purple hues. By mimicking these patterns, engineers have created photonic crystals that can change color in response to light, chemical changes, strain, and temperature. The crystals can be used in medical applications, including biosensing technologies to detect respiratory viruses and biomonitoring to improve or enhance physical performance.
An initial application inspired by nature’s adept ability to manipulate microfluidics, was in the design of a combination device for epinephrine delivery. At the time, current solutions were challenged by two issues, the first of which was size. An EpiPen can measure 6 in. in length, and the patient is required to have two on hand. The second issue is how easily it can be misused and injected into the user’s thumb.
A tiny device was developed utilizing microfluidics technology. While only about the size of a key fob, the device contains safety features, a more intuitive user interface, and a smaller size for user convenience.
Let’s Take a Look at Mosquitoes and Cats
A demonstration of both types of biomimicry and how they are being applied to current innovative medical products takes a look at the ability of the pesky mosquito to be able to simultaneously acquire blood and deliver its saliva, a strong anticoagulant biochemical, through a very small set of canulae in the proboscis. PreciHealth, a start-up medical device manufacturer in Switzerland, looked to this capability to inspire medical device advancement.
The creature’s ability to manage microfluidics inspired the conceptualization and development of ideas around drug-delivery and blood-collection platforms, especially in wearables and injectable devices. Most injectable platforms deliver medication at the milliliter scale, rather than the microliter scale like a mosquito’s transactions.
The challenge for the company was to develop technology that could manage microfluidics in a repeatable and exact manner. PreciHealth initially demonstrated the precision of the new technology in the form of a novel type of wristwatch that was commercialized by its parent company, PreciFlex/ HYT, which proved microfluidic precision and validated the application of the company’s technology into micro injectors.
A cat’s claw and its ability to extend and retract inspired a device allowing patients to collect their own blood samples. The design includes miniature blades for the shallow laceration of capillary vessels, mimicking the extend-and-retract ability of the cat’s claw, making it quick and easy for the patient to comply.
Looking to Nature to Inspire the Future of Healthcare
These are just two examples of how a young company moved from ideation to the creating and manufacturing of products that have radically changed how patients can, and will likely, interact with devices necessary for managing on-going health issues. The company is among many others of all sizes, academic institutions, product designers, and consultants who are leading innovators. The market is ripe for further expansion as the trend moves toward empowering patients in managing their healthcare and as clinical environments embrace more technology-enhanced medical devices to ease the work of clinicians.
According to Grand View Research, the global medical biomimetics market size was valued at USD $29.21 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.7 percent from 2022 to 2030. As biomimetics-based designs could be used in drug delivery, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine, applying inspired biomimetics to illustrate the issues in pharmaceutics and medicine is a promising method for the treatment of deadly diseases like cancer. Additionally, the fast growth of the medical biomimetics market is mainly driven by increasing government funding for research pertaining to biomimetics, along with the adoption and innovations of medical engineering and nanotechnology in healthcare.
With government funding on the increase and agile start-ups looking to develop new and less-complicated ways to deliver needed medical technologies at home and in clinical environments, designers and engineers can benefit from biomimicry in the conceptualizing and developing of exciting new medical devices. Finding inspiration in nature may not be a new concept, but technology has given the industry new tools to successfully leverage innovative ideas and design solutions for medical devices based on what’s readily available to us: our natural environment.
- “Medical Biomimetics Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Type (Cardiovascular, Orthopedic, Ophthalmology), By Application (Wound Healing, Tissue Engineering, Drug Delivery), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2022–2030,” Grand View Research.
- “Tissue Engineering Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Application (Cord Blood & Cell Banking, Cancer, GI & Gynecology, Dental, Orthopedics, Musculoskeletal, & Spine), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2020–2027,” Grand View Research.
- “Regenerative Medicine Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product (Cell-based Immunotherapies, Gene Therapies), By Therapeutic Category, By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2023–2030,” Grand View Research.
This article was written by Jeff Morang, Design, Director of Human Factors Engineering, BlackHägen, Dunedin, FL. For more information, e-mail