The pachinko parlor is the illegal/legal big thing in Japan. These parlors offer rows of pachinko machines, which are sort of hybrid pinball/slot machine games that spit out coupons to a winner that then can be turned in for cheap merchandise.

But winnings also can be discreetly translated to payoffs in yen — “ discreetly,“ meaning in an anonymous “back alley“ sort of way, since gambling is illegal in Japan, though a blind eye is turned to pachinko.

The key to the pachinko parlor system is a card that the player inserts into the machine. On it is a tiny, half-millimeter radio frequency identification (RFID) system that acts as an antenna and enables both “reading“ and “writing“ to the card, the latter calculating wins and losses.

Essentially a microcoil, this RFID antenna device was developed by partners of Maxell (Tokyo) for pachinko machines largely made by Sega, with the technology now being applied by Maxell of America (Fair Lawn, New Jersey) to lab automation, potentially to clinical trial uses and, ultimately, who knows what else?

In general, this translation of pay-for-play industrial technology to the healthcare system suggests three major trends. One, the many paths that can lead to advanced laboratory systems. Two, the emergence of RFID technology in healthcare. And three, the expansion of companies most frequently associated with consumer products into the healthcare sector. (For No. 3, see sidebar, above).

This “coil-on-a-chip“ system, integrated into laboratory tubes for improved identification, efficiency and safety, was unveiled recently by Maxell of America at Lab Automation 2005 in San Jose, California, in a “showcase“ collaboration with ABgene (Rochester, New York/Blenheim, UK) and Micronic (Lelystad, the Netherlands).

The device is essentially an RFID system embedded in the bottom of a lab storage tube. The system “in a nutshell,“ says Jeff Giver, national sales and marketing manager for Maxell of America, “is an antenna coil, on a very small piece of real estate, that's very precise and allows us to have one of the smallest RFID chips in the world.“

While the chip can hold information identifying, in the lab, a specific tube, the small antenna enables information, via scanner and basic laptop, to be delivered, or “written,“ back to the chip, Giger told Medical Device Daily.

Typical information, besides tube identification, might be what exactly was done with the material in the tube and when, and a variety of data validating chain of custody.

The embedded technology thus substitutes for paper records and goes far beyond standard 2-D coding, which Giger calls a basic “etching“ on the tube. Paper documentation, of course, is clearly unreliable, and 2-D coding doesn't offer “write-to“ capability, he notes.

Maxell's coil-on-a-chip “is much more intelligent than a barcode or some other passive system,“ Giger says. “Ours is interactive. You can write information back to our chip. It's really cool — so small, but you can store an amazing amount of information on it.“

In sum, the technology is highly valuable in a venue where sample tubes are constantly on the move.

The term “lab automation,“ he says, “kind of implies situations in which a tray [of tubes] is moving around in a lab, from analytical machine, to work bench to storage system [or] just to look at a sample.“

Not just able to “read“ the information from an individual tube, the system can read an entire rack of tubes, and then producing a spreadsheet of data and also enabling the return of data to the individual tubes and their chips.

Giger acknowledges the increased expense of the system, but says that the target will be for “high-value“ processes.

2-D identification probably increases tube cost by a factor of five or six, with coil-on-a-chip systems adding a factor of three, he estimates. But he says that Maxell need only capture a small percentage of the “billions“ of tubes in the world with the system to be successful.

“We think this is the next level. We will grab a portion of the 2-D business, not replace it,“ he says.

Other potential market targets are pharmaceutical companies and the clinical trial sector handling their studies, with Giger noting that Maxell America is talking to these sectors.

Pharmaceutical companies, he says, are dealing with compounds that are “expensive, volatile and need to be secured with more intelligent systems. They see a high value in being able to secure information back to the sample itself.“

And clinical trial companies have particular needs to establish chain of custody documentation for their clients and regulators.

“That's the value proposition we expect,“ he says, adding that that same proposition could then be used, further out, in blood handling and its associated fields.

Collaborators helping to provide real applications for the coil-on-a-chip are ABgene, a developer of molecular biology reagents, plastic consumables and instruments for the life science and medical research industries, and Micronic, developer of sample storage technologies. Giger said both have identified RFID as the next-generation strategy for improving laboratory automation.

Simon May, PhD, business development manager at ABgene, says, “We have seen the advent of 2-D coding supersede linear barcodes for identification purposes“ and that RFID “could transform how we track and trace specimens in the laboratory . . . [W]ith the ability to store information at an order of magnitude higher, RFID potentially could accelerate and improve the quality of laboratory results and reduce operational costs.“

The RFID product demonstrated at Lab Automation 2005 was developed by Maxell, parent company of Maxell America, in collaboration with Japanese firms Kobe Bio Robotix and Tsubakimoto Chain.

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