What happened in health care technology this week, and why it’s important.
ChatGPT in health care: 5 burning questions about the buzzy new tool
If the buzz is to be believed, ChatGPT seems poised to upend everything from high school essays and news articles to computer coding and scientific research. I’ve already discussed the frenzy about ChatGPT in a previous post. In this Stat article (subscription required), Brittany Trang provides a five-question guide to the technology and potential use cases in healthcare.
Why it’s important – Early experiments in health care have medical ethicists and other onlookers worried about putting too much trust in a tool that still gets answers wrong. Experts told STAT they’re concerned, too, about issues of informed consent and the potential to deepen distrust in medicine by lowering the barrier to creating misinformation.
Infographic of the week – This comes from The Economist and highlights how digital health tools can support Universal Health Coverage. The information was drawn from a 2021 study by the World Bank.
An ALS patient set a record for communicating via a brain implant: 62 words per minute
Brain interfaces could let paralyzed people speak at almost normal speeds. Antonio Regalado reports on this recent research in his article in MIT Technology Review online. Eight years ago, a patient lost her power of speech because of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which causes progressive paralysis. She can still make sounds, but her words have become unintelligible, leaving her reliant on a writing board or iPad to communicate. Now, after volunteering to receive a brain implant, the woman has been able to rapidly communicate phrases like “I don’t own my home” and “It’s just tough” at a rate approaching normal speech. That is the claim in a paper published over the weekend on the website bioRxiv by a team at Stanford University. Other researchers have not formally reviewed the study. The scientists say their volunteer, identified only as “subject T12,” smashed previous records by using the brain-reading implant to communicate at a rate of 62 words a minute, three times the previous best.
Why it’s important – While some skeptics have asked whether measuring from more neurons at one time will make any difference, the new report suggests it will, especially if the job is to brain-read complex movements such as speech. The Stanford scientists found that the more neurons they read from at once, the fewer errors they made in understanding what “T12” was trying to say. The path forward will likely include more sophisticated implants and closer integration with artificial intelligence. I’ve written previously on the potential of brain-computer interfaces. You can read that post here.
Study: New VR sensory room reduces anxiety in people with intellectual disability
MobiHealthNews’ Adam Ang reports on a new VR program with interactive sight, sound, and touch experiences that has helped improve outcomes for adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism and intellectual disability. This is based on the latest study, touted to be the first of such, done by researchers from the Western Sydney University and University of Wollongong, The Disability Trust, and technology company Devika. The five-month preliminary study evaluated the viability and benefits of using Devika’s Evenness VR Sensory Space technology as an intervention tool among 31 adults with different neurodevelopmental disabilities and their carers. Its findings were published in the Nature Scientific Reports Journal. Based on pre and post-scores of the users, the technology helped reduce their anxiety and, in particular, lowered depressive symptoms among participants with depression.
Why it’s important – The study demonstrates the potential of VR to promote the implementation of sensory rooms as an effective intervention tool for persons with neurodevelopmental disabilities. As VR emerges as an assistive tool for many health and wellness activities, the researchers stressed the importance of evaluating its usefulness and benefits, which had been largely unexplored in previous studies.
Podcast of the week – Returning to my roots in medical technology, my recommendation this week is The Radiology Podcast. In this episode, host Daniel Arnold talks about the world of medical imaging with Brian Casey, Editorial Director of Casey Insights, a consulting firm offering content development and consulting services for the medical imaging industry and founding Editor-in-Chief of AuntMinnie.com. Brian discusses his career in radiology, bearing witness to how the radiology industry has changed and the launch and growth of AuntMinnie.com. Brian and Daniel also chat about why Brian started Casey Insights and his vision for growing it, how he approaches stories and his audience, and his thoughts on AI and technology in radiology. Brian has been one of the top reporters in the medical imaging world for years and continues to provide insights into the developments in radiology and AI. You can listen to the podcast here.
Big Tech’s layoff binge stinks. Let’s hope it leads to a little discipline
Tech reporter Harry McCracken authored this piece in Fast Company’s Plugged In newsletter. The hot new trend in tech is more sobering than scintillating. Last week, Microsoft and Google parent Alphabet joined Meta and Amazon in announcing they would lay off thousands of people. Among the biggest, best-known tech companies, only Apple has (so far) managed to avoid such a sweeping reduction of its workforce. The downsizing of Big Tech is a most unfortunate development for the thousands of staffers who are being shown the door, sometimes in grossly insensitive ways. But McCracken contends that the layoffs could even lead to them making better decisions about future products that will benefit us all.
Why it’s important – It’s no fun skimming Twitter and LinkedIn and seeing talented people disclose that they’ve lost their jobs, sometimes after many happy and productive years. But as I suggested in a previous post, there may be an opportunity to have these tech professionals move into healthcare and create benefits for both the individual and our industry. I’ve already seen many posts on LinkedIn announcing new positions as tech workers explore the many opportunities to apply their skills to help us solve some of the pressing issues we face.
Nvidia’s AI Tech Designs Proteins Never Seen in Nature, Pointing Way to New Therapies
A collaboration between Nvidia and startup Evozyne produced novel versions of a human protein never before seen in nature but with enhanced function and the same safety as the native protein. The research lays the groundwork for potential new therapies for a rare inherited disorder. Frank Vinluan brings us the story in MedCity News. The research results were announced during the recent J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. The Nvidia and Evozyne research focused on the phenylalanine hydroxylase (PAH) protein family. PAH is an enzyme needed to break down phenylalanine, an amino acid found in certain foods. PAH deficiency leads to a rare disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU), in which phenylalanine levels build up in the body and cause neurological impairment. Patients with this inherited disorder manage it by maintaining a strict diet that avoids phenylalanine-containing food.
When engineering therapeutic proteins, scientists aim to make changes that enhance the protein’s function without compromising its safety. In the research described by Nvidia, Evozyne created a PAH protein with 51 mutations. Despite all of those changes, that protein was still able to achieve a two-and-a-half times enhancement in functionality compared to native human PAH, Powell said. Going further, the technology was able to design a PAH protein with 167 mutations. Despite changing more than half of the protein, that version of PAH still retained its function.
Why it’s important – PKU has few FDA-approved therapies. BioMarin Pharmaceutical markets two: the small molecule drug Kuvan and Palynziq, an engineered enzyme designed to substitute for the deficient PAH. But using these drugs does not eliminate the need for patients to continue dietary restrictions. Other companies are in various stages of development with potential PKU therapies that could help patients who don’t respond to the currently available BioMarin products. Homology Medicines is in early-stage clinical testing of a gene-editing therapy that replaces the disease-causing gene with a functional one. PTC Therapeutics has reached late-stage clinical testing with a small molecule drug for PKU. Earlier this month, Jnana Therapeutics received FDA permission to begin a Phase 1 trial of a small molecule drug candidate for the metabolic disorder.
Seven technologies to watch in 2023
Nature selected seven scientific tools and techniques poised to have an outsized impact on science in 2023. Out of those, here are the ones that could be relevant in medicine and healthcare.
- Single-molecule protein sequencing – Most proteomic analyses use mass spectrometry, a technique that profiles mixtures of proteins based on their mass and charge. These profiles can quantify thousands of proteins simultaneously, but the molecules detected cannot always be identified unambiguously, and low-abundance proteins in a mixture are often overlooked. Now, single-molecule technologies that can sequence many, if not all, of the proteins in a sample could be on the horizon — many of them analogous to the techniques used for DNA. Although single-molecule protein sequencing is only a proof of concept at present, commercialization is coming fast.
- CRISPR anywhere – The genome-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9 has justifiably earned a reputation as the go-to method for introducing defined changes at targeted sites throughout the genome, driving breakthroughs in gene therapy, disease modeling, and other areas of research. But there are limits as to where it can be used. Now, researchers are finding ways to circumvent those limitations.
- Single-cell metabolomics – Metabolomics — the study of the lipids, carbohydrates, and other small molecules that drive the cell — was originally a set of methods for characterizing metabolites in a population of cells or tissues but is now shifting to the single-cell level. Scientists could use such cellular-level data to untangle the functional complexity in vast populations of seemingly identical cells. But the transition poses daunting challenges.
- In vitro embryo models – The journey from fertilized ovum to fully formed embryo has been mapped in detail at the cellular level for mice and humans. But the molecular machinery driving the early stages of this process remains poorly understood. Now a flurry of activity in ‘embryoid’ models is helping to fill these knowledge gaps, giving researchers a clearer view of the important early events that can determine the success or failure of fetal development.
Top 14 Use Cases of Natural Language Processing in Healthcare
Finally, this week here’s an article from Maruti Tech Labs highlighting fourteen use cases of Natural Language Processing in healthcare. NLP illustrates how artificial intelligence policies gather and assess unstructured data from the language of humans to extract patterns, get the meaning and thus compose feedback. This is helping the healthcare industry to make the best use of unstructured data. This technology facilitates providers to automate the administrative work, invest more time in taking care of the patients, and enrich the patient’s experience using real-time data.
Why it’s important – Natural Language Processing in healthcare is not a single solution to all problems. I’ve written before about the use of voice-enabled technology in healthcare. NLP is a foundational element that supports the use of those technologies. Although the healthcare industry still needs to improve its data capacities before deploying NLP tools, it can enhance care delivery and streamline work considerably.