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Ultra-Fine Needle Makes the Impossible Possible (December 20, 2005)

The award-winning Nanopass 33 needle (photo supplied by Terumo Corp.) (jiji)
Though injections are vital for preventing and treating diseases, they are almost universally disliked by children and adults. The fear of injections, however, may soon be a thing of the past. In July 2005, a painless needle went on sale to hospitals and other medical facilities. The instrument was jointly developed by two Tokyo-based companies - Terumo Corporation, a medical equipment manufacturer, and Okano Industrial Corp., a firm with an international reputation for its metal-pressing technology - with the goal of reducing the pain of shots.

The World's Thinnest Needle
The painless syringe is called Nanopass 33 and is sold under the brand name Microtaper Needle. According to Terumo, Nanopass 33's tip is just 0.20 millimeters in diameter, 20% thinner than conventional needles used to inject insulin. It is the thinnest needle in the world and reduces the discomfort of an injection to about the same level as a mosquito bite. The suggested retail price for a pack of 70 syringes is ¥2,100 ($17.50 at ¥120 to the dollar).

Terumo decided that it wanted to do something for diabetics, whose dependence on insulin means they must give themselves several injections a day and live with the pain and anxiety of daily shots. About 600,000 people in Japan alone are said to suffer from diabetes. In developing the needle, Terumo hoped to provide them with some physical and psychological relief.

Nanopass 33 won the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization's Good Design Grand Prize in 2005, with judges describing it as a product that raised awareness of the need to reduce the pain experienced by patients and "an example of a need making an impossible technology possible, and a product that caused a stir in Japan's manufacturing."

Small Is Beautiful
The development of Nanopass 33 was made possible by Okano Industrial Corp., a small factory with a handful of employees that, despite its size, boasts a high level of technology. This small firm is so skilled in metal pressing that it has even attracted the attention of major international corporations and NASA. The company's president, Okano Masayuki, is known as a world-class craftsman and has been called a "metalwork magician."

The traditional method of manufacturing needles is to hollow out a cylindrical piece of metal, but it is extremely difficult to make ultra-thin needles this way. Through a process of trial and error, Okano Industrial hit upon the new method of rolling up a very thin sheet of stainless steel and welding the seam tightly to make a leak-proof cylinder. Through this innovative technique requiring ultra-precision processing, Okano Kogyo was able to bring Terumo's plan to fruition.

To reduce resistance at the time of injection, the sheet of metal is rolled into a cone with a particular contour - an extraordinary achievement given the fineness of the needle's tip. Terumo devised a special process for tapering the tip and mass producing the needles.

In an interview made available over the Internet, Okano Masayuki said that Terumo approached a number of companies with the idea for the syringe and only came to Okano Industrial after everybody else turned it down. He also revealed that a physics professor had deemed the plan theoretically impossible, holding that a sheet of metal so thin could not be rolled up. Okano says he decided to give it a try anyway because he could not resist taking up the challenge of a project that nobody else would take on; hearing that it could not be done made him all the more determined. "I like doing things that other people can't do," he said.

The desire to reduce the discomfort of patients thus combined with the passion of an artisan devoted to his trade to create a new product that overturns conventional wisdom.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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