Health Tech News This Week – October 30, 2021

What happened in health care technology this week – and why it’s important.

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The Blockchain is making domain names more private – for good or bad

A Microsoft report raises the alarm about a new kind of domain name that it says is ripe for abuse by cybercriminals. As Rob Pegoraro reported in Fast Company online, “The next big threat” is how Microsoft’s latest annual security report characterizes domain names written into a distributed ledger maintained across a constellation of computers instead of stored in a traditional, centralized registry. Storing domain names on a blockchain can make them difficult to shut down or even trace to their owners. It also leaves them inaccessible without special software or settings.

“In recent years, we have observed blockchain domains integrated into cybercriminal infrastructure and operations,” the report says, nodding to Microsoft’s experience last spring disrupting a botnet called Necurs. The potential for abuse led a group called OpenNIC, which promotes alternatives to the traditional domain-name system, to vote in 2019 to block the .bit domain lest the organization be “directly responsible for the creation of a whole new class of malware.”

Why it’s important – As I outlined in a previous post, blockchain applications in health care are many, and the potential to solve some significant challenges is encouraging. But, as with any developing technology, some bad actors will use the technology for nefarious purposes like ransomware. It’s important to follow developments in this critical area to understand what companies like Microsoft are doing to minimize the risk associated with blockchain use.

Scientists used a tiny brain implant to help a blind teacher see letters again

A former science teacher who’s been blind for 16 years became able to see letters, discern objects’ edges — and even play a Maggie Simpson video game — thanks to a visual prosthesis that includes a camera and a brain implant, according to American and Spanish researchers who collaborated on the project. Bill Chappell reported on the research project in an article on NPR this week.

The test subject had the implant for six months and experienced no disruptions to her brain activity or other health complications, according to an abstract of the study that was published this week in The Journal of Clinical Investigation. Some of the prosthesis’ effects were limited; it did not let Gómez identify all letters of the alphabet, for instance. But she “reliably discriminated some letters such as ‘I,’ ‘L,’ ‘C,’ ‘V’ and ‘O,’ ” according to the study.

Why it’s important – The study furthers what it calls a “long-held dream of scientists” to impart a rudimentary form of sight to blind people by sending information directly to the brain’s visual cortex. The method of bypassing the eyes altogether could someday restore vision to roughly 148 million people worldwide — that’s how many people have had the link between their eyes and their brain severed, the researchers say, due to conditions such as glaucoma or optic nerve atrophy.

CrossFit to launch ‘fully digital’ primary care service

Kat Jercich reports that the fitness company will join other startups in offering direct-to-consumer virtual care services, in addition to precision health and preventive medicine in HealthITNews. CrossFit is offering its new services in partnership with the Wild Health platform, which says it uses a DNA kit to “analyze the genetic advantages, predispositions, and disadvantages [making] up your human operating system.” Users who need specialty or in-person care can be referred elsewhere, although CrossFit says it hopes to build a CrossFit-affiliated network of specialists eventually. The service is not covered by insurance, but its approximate $100 monthly subscription fee is eligible for Health Savings Account coverage.

Why it’s important – Crossfit joins many other consumer fitness companies in jumping into the “virtual care” market. The upside is that there are many options to choose from at different price points to meet the consumers’ ability to pay. But some experts caution that a massive shift to telemedicine for primary care may exacerbate healthcare disparities, particularly for people who already face hurdles to accessing services.

AI Generates Hypotheses Human Scientists Have Not Thought Of

Creating hypotheses has long been a purely human domain. Now, though, scientists are beginning to ask machine learning to produce original insights. Robin Blades reports on this trend in an article in Scientific American this week. Electric vehicles can substantially reduce carbon emissions, but car companies are running out of materials to make batteries. One crucial component, nickel, is projected to cause supply shortages as early as the end of this year. Scientists recently discovered four new materials that could potentially help—and what may be even more intriguing is how they found these materials: the researchers relied on artificial intelligence to pick out valuable chemicals from a list of more than 300 options.

Several years ago, Anant Madabhushi, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, used interpretability techniques to understand why some patients are more likely than others to have a recurrence of breast or prostate cancer. He fed patient scans to a neural network, and the network identified those with a higher risk of cancer reoccurrence. Then Madabhushi analyzed the network to find the most important feature for determining a patient’s probability of developing cancer again. The results suggested that how tightly glands’ interior structures are packed together is the factor that most accurately predicts the likelihood that cancer will come back.

Why it’s important – The Case Western Reserve University example demonstrates that using AI, interoperability techniques, and neural networks can overcome the inherent human biases that often factor into the data used to train machine learning algorithms by encouraging them to think in new ways. This can have profound implications for disease research in the future.

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