The pace of medical technology advances boggles even the minds of the doctors and researchers involved. While the media seems to be focused on drug and treatment pricing inequities, doctors struggle to keep up with the array of new options they could (or should) offer patients. Insurers, healthcare advocates, government entities and non-profits all face great challenges in creating coverage arrangements and delivery systems that keep up with the pace of medical advances and connected health.
Here we cover the most recent advances in the treatment and diagnosis of most challenging diseases of our time. Some are closer to market than others. We hope providing this overview of the future of technology in healthcare enriches your practice, career and/or overall health. Be on the lookout for these topics in the media!
Technological Progress in Cancer Treatment
Scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard used the proteins in DNA molecules as scaffolding to build nano-sized electronic circuits and drug delivery devices. These devices can be towed to the specific places in the body rather than subjecting all cells in the body to certain potentially debilitating treatments . . . like chemotherapy.
Much more than just getting to know you, personalized medicine will involve sequencing the DNA of each patient in order to formulate appropriate drug cocktails and other treatments. Since cancer tends to become its own entity once it proliferates in an individual, DNA sequencing could engender a specificity that empowers the rest of the body to stay healthy enough to fight cancer in a contained, targeted location.
Technological Progress in Obesity and Diabetes
Up to fifty percent of patients with chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes do not follow prescribed treatments. When a patient doesn’t comply with treatment protocol, the health system that treats him or her loses its power to heal. Dismal compliance rates demoralize healthcare professionals. Doctors and others try nagging patients, showing them powerful statistics, making them watch frightening videos or listen to stories about others who failed to follow healthcare directives. And still, 50% don’t carry out the doctor’s orders.
Teams at several universities are working on another strategy: get patients to play a game. After all, apps like Candy Crush, Angry Birds and more, are ubiquitous and addictive. Turning health directives into a game shows promise for motivating clients and collecting the data needed for both health professionals and patients to make informed decisions on the daily activities that promote or denigrate health. Called “gamified health tracking,” the smartphone apps work to keep patients within recommendations. Examples include Jawbone, Fitlinxx, FitBit, Atari Fit, Nike + Running, Fitocracy, FitRPG, Strava, and Spire. The short-term gratification of that triple cheeseburger could be waylaid by the short-term gratification of winning points or getting to the next game level. After all, we all need our little, daily reinforcements. Next time you hear, “gamified health tracking,” don’t dismiss it. It could save your or your patient’s life.
Technological Progress in Heart Issues
The “gamified health tracking” discussed above would work well with another widespread, chronic issue: heart disease. The exercise and diet modifications doctors treating heart disease recommend fit well into a game structure. Hopefully, the quick rewards the game provides will begin to replace the sedentary, processed-food lifestyle of so many today with blocked arteries and deficient heart function.
While heart disease accounts for one in four of all deaths (including accidents and cancer) in the United States, heart arrhythmias, too, threaten the lives and lifestyle of millions. The pacemaker proved a lifesaving device for heart arrhythmia patients around the world, but its battery dies every seven years or so. The surgery to replace it is not only expensive, it can be dangerous; particularly for the elderly patients who are the most common sufferers of arrhythmias.
If you’ll allow a common comparison, scientists at the University of Michigan are on track to develop the Prius Hybrid of pacemakers. If you haven’t enjoyed a Prius Hybrid ride to date, you may be surprised to learn that the action of pressing on the break creates the electricity that powers much of the car. Similarly, Dr. Amin Karami and his team have developed a device that stores the electricity generated from the beating heart. They aim to make pacemaker replacements obsolete by storing energy from the beating muscle. Excited by preliminary trials, Karami and his team will soon test the technology on a human heart. They’ve already used a version to store electricity created by vibrations in the inner ear to power a radio.
Technological Progress in Brain Issues
Recent NFL scandals have provided much needed reminders about the delicate nature of the brain. Slight trauma can have lasting effects, particularly when trauma is repeated or occurs in sensitive areas. Now, researchers at Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health in China, have used waste cells from urine to create “progenitor cells.” With the help of retroviruses, the body uses these modified cells as building blocks for brain cells. While embryonic stems cells have been used in the past to repair brain damage, researchers have been disappointed by their propensity to produce tumors. Early tests indicate that the urine-based cells shape into neurons free of tumors or mutations. Watch for human trials of this technology from China!
To this point, a central method of repairing physical brain damage has been rehabilitation, a retraining that re-builds neural connections through physical action. Now, researchers are working on a “Portable NeuroModulation Simulator” or PoNS, a small device that stimulates the nerve clusters in the tongue which are connected to the brain. PoNS is showing promise for repairing the effects of alcoholism, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and more.
Technological Progress in COPD and other Lung Diseases
Patients with COPD and lung cancer can languish on lung replacement waiting lists until it’s too late. If new lungs could be created with the volume and specificity of artificial knees, many families could enjoy their loved ones for decades longer.
Glauco Souza and his team and at Nano 3-D Biosciences are working hard to create this catalog of replacement lungs. They are successfully growing lung tissue not in a two-dimensional petri dish but a 3-D shape suspended above a nutrient solution. Using nano-magnets, the 3-D growth more closely mimics cellular growth as it occurs in the body. The hope is that this tissue has a lower chance of rejection than that grown in petri dishes. Synthetic lung transplants rather than donor tissues means shortened wait times and patient lists.
Technological Progress in Orthopedics
When plastics were first invented, one business “expert” quipped, “Sure. But what is it good for? Maybe ping pong balls, but that’s all.” 3-D printers came with its phalanx of detractors as “pundits” said, “who needs more plastic keychains and salt shakers.” Those initial prototypes were just the beginning for the visionaries who saw 3-D printers as solving a myriad of social and even medical problems.
The orthopedists were the first to stand in line for 3-D printers. Give them credit for adapting a printer so that it holds a material that disintegrates over time. Before that happens, they make a model with the same strength, flexibility and most of all unique shape, of a damaged bone. They insert it into body and wait for the real bone to grow up around it like a scaffold. The combination of zinc, silicon and calcium phosphate eventually deteriorates and natural processes take over. So far, it’s been successfully tested in rabbits, and researchers are excited for human trials.