Medical Devices Designed in Virtual Reality

The U's new technology could cut the cost of product development in half.

Medical device engineers do their work at the edge of a void: the gap between what they can learn about the functionality of a new design on a computer and what’s revealed through animal and human trials. For now, says Art Erdman, device companies have to fill that gap with money, or forgo design changes that they might want to make based on trials.

“Once you’ve committed to an animal or clinical trial, you have in many cases frozen your design,” says Erdman, director of the Medical Devices Center at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine. “It’s so expensive to go through an animal trial and then change something.”

Erdman wants to bridge the gap with virtual reality technologies (VRT) instead, and eventually establish a new VRT standard that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can use to approve medical devices for market. A research team from the Medical Devices Center and the university’s Supercomputing Institute is creating 3-D simulation environments in which engineers can see and feel how a device interacts with the body.

An engineer designing a device to treat brain aneurysms, for instance, could use the university’s technology to test whether the device had the right degree of stiffness and flexibility to navigate through the brain for implantation, Erdman says. Through simulation, the engineer could even feel how much resistance the brain tissue had to the pressure of the device.

Virtual reality simulation in the medical device field is not new, but Erdman says he’s not aware of another environment for device testing that’s as complex as what his team is working on. It would give results in real time and allow testers to change more than one parameter at a time and do it on the fly. While some companies have their own VRT models, they don’t share them for competitive reasons. So there’s no single, widely accepted model—a fact that both the FDA and Erdman’s group would like to change.

The university began work on the project about three years ago, and is getting input from several local device companies. St. Jude Medical provided grant money to get the project off the ground. It can now take up to five years and roughly $20 million for a heart device from a company like St. Jude to get to market from the time it’s conceptualized. Rick Stein, an engineer in St. Jude Medical’s atrial fibrillation division, says the U’s technology could cut the time and the cost in half.

Erdman’s research group will learn in September whether it’s been given a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation that would be distributed over the next four years. If the money comes, he believes the university’s first VRT model—for heart-device simulations—could be ready within about a year.

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