March 11, 2010
The prominence of World Kidney Day (11th March) brings into sharp focus the changing epidemiology of our times and the impact of modern life styles of the developed world on the demands placed on healthcare systems. The surge in incidence of diabetes coupled with extending life expectancy are producing a parallel rise in the incidence of kidney disease and all of the costs associated with managing that disease.
The medical technology industry has much to offer now and in the future in dealing with this challenge. Dialysis is at the centre of maintaining patients with acute kidney disease and the sophistication and safety of treatments in this area have been the subject of continuous improvement since the first effective process was performed on a patient by Dutch physician Dr Willem Kolff in 1943 at the University of Groningen Hospital.
Like many innovations in the medical technology field, Kolff’s was viewed as madness by many of his colleagues and it took another two decades before dialysis was taken seriously by the broader medical community. Also like many products of European innovators, Kolff’s inventions were taken up in the United States where the majority of the scientific and commercial development took place. So committed to getting his ideas adopted was Kolff that he gave his five prototype ‘artificial kidneys’ to hospitals as a way of encouraging them to develop the concept. One of these, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, was where Kolff continued to develop his ideas although these were not popular with the hospital management and eventually the project moved to Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital where the next generation of dialyser was made and lead to the first kidney transplant in 1954.
This story is just one of many which illustrates both the tortuous path of medical technology innovation and the need for vision to imagine what is possible and stick with the project. It both illustrates the iterative nature of development and the dangers of judging new ideas in their formative early years of development – HTA agencies beware! This story is, also, a timely reminder that industrial development is at the heart of translating laboratory ideas into products that can serve the patients of the world. In Europe we have the innovative capacity in our clinical sciences but all too often the real investment, development and commercial success (jobs and trade) takes place across the Atlantic. In the future you can add China and India to the list of potential exploiters of European innovation. Those sponsoring the Europe 2020 proposals for the economic development of Europe could do worse than use our sector as an example of what is possible in terms utilising Europe’s strengths to generate high quality jobs that benefit European citizens in more ways than one.