SensUs Interview: Keita Ito

SensUs 2019 focuses on innovative biosensing systems for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Here Keita Ito, full professor in Orthopaedic Biomechanics explains his views on the SensUs competition and this year’s theme. 

I am Keita Ito and was born in Japan, but I grew up in both the Japanese and American culture. I did my university studies, my graduate school and medical school all in Boston. I am trained as orthopedic surgeon but I also have a doctorate in biomedical engineering. At the moment, I am a full professor and I lead the orthopaedic biomechanics research group in the department of Biomedical Engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology. 

My passions are science and engineering, and tend to focus on the things that cross over the line between the two. As a medical doctor, I am passionate about fundamental science and I try to translate the insights to the clinic. In my career I have been flip-flopping between engineering and science. It is only since six years that I have been able to find a balance between these two, as I am now also working at the orthopedics department in Utrecht one day a week. This translates into having more contact with clinicians, also in de region of Eindhoven. 

Within the orthopaedic biomechanics research group, we focus on biomechanics, because all these tissues have a mechanical function. We study articular cartilage for example. I think the theme of SensUs 2019 is a great theme. I think arthritis is in the top five reasons, if not the number one reason why people visit a doctor. Everybody experiences joint aches and complains about it, especially later in life. Our population is getting older and staying active later in life, thus these joint aches become quite important as it affects your daily activities. There is a saying ‘Movement is life, life is movement’, if your ability to move is taken away, your life is pretty limited. 

 “Movement is life, life is movement.”

Point of care testing can be of great value in reumatoïd arthritis. A good argument for why people with rheumatoid arthritis should have access to point of care testing and chemical monitoring, is that most rheumatoid arthritis patients have no idea what the status of their joints is. In the past, the only focus in treating RA was on treating the pain and not on treating the disease. The problem with only treating the pain, is that you can give someone pain killers which relieves the pain, but at the same time, they are damaging their joints. 

The main problem with rheumatoid arthritis is that cartilage is being worn away slowly. Cartilage is a tissue that does not repair, unless you do something about it. If you allow these patients to be pain free, but also let the disease progress and damage the cartilage, then at some point there is a point of no return.  With the points of care and chemical monitoring, you have a chance to not only give the patient feedback about their pain complaints, but also inform them whether the drug is actually modifying the disease.

 “If you allow patients to be pain free, but also let the disease progress and damage the cartilage, then at some point there is a point of no return.”

The SensUs competition gives a purposeful application of the knowledge that you use as a student. Furthermore, it is always fun to achieve this common goal, the development of the best biosensor, as a team. And it is even more fun to compete against the other teams, even though the competition is good-willed. Competitions similar to  that of SensUs are also present in other fields of research and often have really surprising outcomes.

The advice I would give to the teams has to do with the fact that  during the development of these point of care testing systems, there is often a lot of attention paid to the science behind it and care given to the opinion of caregivers, but sometimes not enough attention given to the patients themselves. The opinion of the patients is very important, especially in terms of the impact on their lives, how it is easy to use, how it is easy to understand and the motivation they can get from using these systems. In the end, hardly any of these point of care systems are ‘patient-proof’, in a way that they work independently of the patient, you need the involvement of the patient to get them to work. Only if the patients are happy with the system and see the value it gives to them, the system is going to work. That would be one of the things I have learned in the past about systems that interact with patients and would like to give to the teams as advice.