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transper_1pic.gif New Horizons for Medical
and WelfareProducts


Aichi, a prefecture devoted to making things, has a huge number of manufacturing firms and some of the best technologies in the world. Interest in recent years has narrowed in on the prefecture’s cutting-edge technologies, of which biotechnology is one. As Japan is a country with a rapidly graying population, new products in the fields of medicine and welfare have been attracting special attention.

For this Feature column, we decided to train a spotlight on these fields to see what Aichi’s manufacturers are up to in the way of innovative and original endeavors. While listening to the voices of company executives, let us probe into the minds of makers who are intent on giving birth to key technologies for the 21st century.



Juken Kogyo:
Microminiature gears for modern medicine

Tokai Medical Products:
More than 30,000 lives saved

Tims:
Walking on your own power

Japan Tissue Engineering:
Biotech tools for regeneration


Juken Kogyo:
Microminiature gears for modern medicine

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The 0.67-millimeter gear developed by Juken Kogyo, which weighs just one ten-thousandth of a gram
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When we walked in the door of Juken Kogyo Co., Ltd., in Toyohashi City, right away we were given a glass bottle with powder inside it. “These are gearwheels we developed,” President Motoo Matsuura informed us. So we peered more closely at the bottle, but it still looked like it just contained some powdery substance. “This is a powder made of plastic,” he explained. “The particles in it all have a diameter of 0.147 millimeters and weigh a millionth of a gram, and each single particle has five teeth.”

Established in 1965, Juken Kogyo is a manufacturer of plastic precision parts for watches, consumer electronics, and other products. It has the best technology of any Japanese company for making ultraminiature plastic gears, and its latest “powder gears,” as Matsuura calls them, were unveiled in 2002 and are the smallest made anywhere in the world.

“Tiny things have always fascinated me,” Matsuura recollects. “I remember taking apart my father's pocket watch when I was young. During the days of the oil crises of the 1970s, we decided to pursue miniaturization seriously. After all, in the new age of conserving resources and energy, parts would also need to be made smaller.”

While technology is clearly one of the advantages that has made this firm strong, foresight is arguably its greatest strength. By the second half of the 1980s Juken Kogyo was making watch gears with a 0.8-millimeter diameter weighing two-thousandths of a gram, and it moved on to tinier gears with a 0.67-millimeter diameter weighing one ten-thousandth of a gram. Then, in 1998, it announced that it had a system of mass production for gears with a 0.26-millimeter diameter weighing one one-hundred-thousandth of a gram.

None of these advances was in response to a client’s request. Each was made at the firm’s own initiative on the assumption that some day such gears would be needed. The successive breakthroughs have prompted makers of consumer electronics and automobiles to sit up and take notice, and Juken Kogyo’s clients have broadened in scope. The 0.147-millimeter powder gear is a case in point, since there is nothing it can be used in yet. “It is the upshot of our review at the end of the 20th century of what technological needs would arise over the next 10 to 20 years,” Matsuura remarks.

“Miniaturization is progressing rapidly in electronic devices like cell phones,” he notes. “After 2010, when optical devices will be widespread, we’re bound to enter an age of nanotechnology, and parts with a weight of one-millionth of a gram are sure to be needed in nanotech medical devices built for use in capillaries. We’re still at the stage preceding applications, but nanotechnology is moving steadily into the realm of the possible. Being able to quickly supply whatever is required—that, I’d say, is the mission of the parts maker.”

Cogwheels and medical instruments. To the layperson, there seems little they might have in common, but President Matsuura is confident that a nanotech age is coming in which microminiature gears will play a key role in medical applications, and his company is preparing for the arrival of that age.



Tokai Medical Products:
More than 30,000 lives saved


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It shows a PTA balloon catheter, the third catheter developed by Tokai Medical Products following the IABP catheter and the PTCA balloon catheter. The PTCA balloon catheter is used to distend coronary arteries at constricted or blocked sites, and the PTA balloon catheter can be used in other arteries as well.
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Have you ever heard of the medical instrument known as the intra-aortic balloon pump, commonly called the IABP catheter? Inserted in the thoracic (chest) aorta of victims of heart attacks or similar disorders, it inflates and deflates a balloon in time with the pulse to assist the heart in circulating blood.

Tokai Medical Products, Inc., which is based in Kasugai City, was the first company to make IABP catheters domestically. Set up in 1981, it developed a balloon catheter with its original technology in 1989, and it still has the largest market share of all domestically made catheters.

“When we embarked on the development of an IABP catheter in 1986,” President Nobumasa Tsutsui states, “Japan’s medical institutions were all using imported balloon catheters. But they weren’t specifically tailored for the smaller size of the Japanese body, and there were also cases of ruptured balloons and complications like kidney failure.” With the cooperation of a university hospital, Tokai Medical Products first made a careful study of the physique of the Japanese to clarify the correlations with the length and thickness of blood vessels, and it then designed three types of balloons for different combinations of height and weight.

In the pursuit of quality, costs were disregarded. “The doctors at the hospital who participated in the development work still tell me how impressed they were by our enthusiasm,” says Tsutsui. “If instead we’d approached them with a proposition to team up with us in a moneymaking project, I doubt they’d have tried so hard to give us help.”

Earlier, at the time of the firm’s foundation, it was research into artificial hearts that distinguished the firm’s R&D program. This came about because in 1978 the doctor treating Tsutsui’s 10-year-old second daughter, who had a congenital heart defect, informed the family that the problem was untreatable and that their daughter probably would not live for longer than 10 years, whether she was operated on or not. “I really wanted to make an ideal artificial heart for her,” Tsutsui recalls. “But the costs were just too astronomical, and the time required too long. Even so, I still felt I had to do something, and the IABP project was the result. We had to start from scratch, but I was driven by an obsession to save human lives. No doubt the intensity of my feelings got through to the doctors at the university hospital.”

This dedication is also evident in the composition of the products the firm manufactures. It turns out a range of 5 sizes from very small to very large. Some 90% of the demand is for the medium-sized items, and sales of the smallest and largest sizes are very rare. A company interested in making money would cease to manufacture these 2 sizes, but Tokai Medical Products never fails to keep a supply of them on hand.

“My belief is that in the medical field in particular, you have to be ready for the irregular case,” Tsutsui states. “My conviction that saving lives is the most important thing is a gift I received from my daughter.” The daughter passed away 3 years after the development of the IABP catheter got started, but the balloon catheters made by his company have now saved more than 30,000 lives.



Tims:
Walking on your own power



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The artificial hip joint, made of duralumin, in the Primewalk developed by Tims. The model shown has a motor for auxiliary power.
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Tims Co., Ltd., is an auto parts maker also engaged in the planning and development of auto accessories. Located in Fujioka, a town to the east of Nagoya, it has specialized since its foundation in 1959 in the manufacture of door hinges and other functional auto parts, and it has acquired a reputation as a company that does everything by itself, from material development and designing to production and delivery.

Several years ago it developed a new product, the Primewalk. Intended for use in the medical and welfare sector, it has attracted a great deal of interest as a revolutionary walking aid for people who have difficulty getting around because of an injury or illness. Made of duralumin, it serves as a sort of artificial hip joint that attaches to the inner thighs, helping the wearer to assume an upright position and walk smoothly.

“A number of walking aids designed for rehabilitation have been available for years, but they aren’t always all that easy to use,” says Tims President Masaru Tatematsu. “They also aren’t easy to attach and detach unaided, since they were designed on the assumption that an attendant would be on hand. In the development of the Primewalk, accordingly, we set our sights on making it light and easy for the wearer to attach. We wanted something that would be of everyday use.”

Development was carried out in cooperation with a university hospital, and began with a scientific analysis of walking motion as seen from the user’s perspective. To mimic hip joint movement, the firm brought into play the advanced technologies it uses for making car door hinges. A trial-and-error process ensued, but since Tims has a total system covering material development, design, and production, it managed to complete the development with know-how it already had.

Medicine and welfare were unknown territories to this maker of auto parts, but there was a reason for its decision to venture so far afield from its core business, where no one doubts its abilities. “8 years ago,” Tatematsu tells us, “I got my first experience at being hospitalized when I went in for surgery to cure back pains, and I found out for myself how enervated you can become when you’re confined to bed. I became desperate to get out of bed and do whatever I could by myself, even if I couldn’t move about easily, but there weren’t any support devices suited to my needs. ‘In that case I’ll make something,’ I said to myself, and I broached this idea to my doctor.”

On the front lines of clinical practice these days, an awareness is spreading that moving the body is extremely important for recovery and that rehabilitation should often start right away, even for many victims of strokes. But when the patient is unable to walk for some reason, even if his or her problem is not serious, opportunities for moving the body become very limited. Tatematsu’s legs are in fine shape today, but he still has vivid memories of what he went through while hospitalized.

The concept he has been championing ever since then is one of creating walking aids suited to whatever ailments patients may have so that they can get out of their beds or wheelchairs and move about more freely. This challenge in development may create new trends in welfare equipment.


Japan Tissue Engineering:
Biotech tools for regeneration


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A sample of cultured tissues (Photo courtesy of Japan Tissue Engineering)
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"Everything in the body is made of cells. And everything all starts from a single cell. This means that regenerative medicine can be applied to every part of the body, in theory at least. Progress in the technology for this is bound to become a blessing for patients."

Those were the first words out of the mouth of President Hideo Ozawa of Japan Tissue Engineering Co., Ltd., which is located in Gamagori City. Established in 1999, J-TEC immediately moved into the vanguard of regenerative medicine, which has as its goal the complete repair or restoration of damaged or missing tissues and organs. Usually when an organ, for example, becomes injured or succumbs to disease, medical treatment is aimed at returning it to health. Regenerative medicine, by contrast, seeks to replace the organ with a new one grown in a laboratory. If this can be realized, it will offer a truly radical cure.

“Regenerative medicine has been a dream of humankind since the distant past,” Ozawa states. "Tissue engineering holds the promise of making that dream come true. The objective of tissue engineering is to combine cells, growth factors, and other biological materials in order to create and supply tissues and organs, or substitutes for them, that have functions equal to the body parts they are replacing. Regenerative medicine should also be able to solve many of the existing problems in organ transplantation."

Organ transplants are being performed in Japan, but one of the problems plaguing them is that the body of the recipient often tries to reject the donor’s organ in a reaction known as immunorejection. Suppressing this reaction continues to be difficult. When the transplanted material comes from the patient himself or herself, moreover, there is a limit to what is available for transplant. As Ozawa observes, regenerative medicine has the potential to eliminate these obstacles.

J-TEC has achieved some success with cultured skin and cartilage, reaching the stage where they can be transplanted. With this as a foundation, research will proceed on to muscles, nerves, and the cornea, eventually arriving at whole organs like the liver and kidneys. The development of tissue with antibacterial properties through the introduction of genes using “transgenic” methods is also on the schedule.

Ozawa continues, “Regenerative medicine in Japan has reached the point where it is just one step away from becoming an industry. The question is how that step is to be taken. Japan’s technologies may be the equal of Western ones, but our country is lagging behind in the commercialization of technologies. Unlike in the research stage, product control techniques become crucial in the industrial stage. And Aichi, a manufacturing prefecture, has superlative product control know-how as well as the spirit to sustain excellence in quality. Admittedly a move into a new field entails risks, but we simply must come up with the courage to accept the challenge. My aspiration is to develop regenerative medicine into a new industry in Aichi.”
(Masahiro Ota; photos by Tadashi Aizawa)




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