Health Tech News This Week – July 9, 2022

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

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Could You Inhale a Future COVID Vaccine?

Tracy Peake from NC State posted this article on Futurity this past week. A new inhalable COVID-19 vaccine is shelf-stable at room temperature for up to three months, targets the lungs specifically and effectively, and allows for self-administration via an inhaler, researchers report. The researchers also found that the delivery mechanism for this vaccine—a lung-derived exosome called LSC-Exo—is more effective at evading the lung’s mucosal lining than the lipid-based nanoparticles currently in use and can be used effectively with protein-based vaccines.

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Why it’s important – The researchers note that while the work is promising, there are still challenges associated with large-scale production and purification of the exosomes. LSCs, the cell type used for generating RBD-Exo, are currently in a Phase I clinical trial by the same researchers for treating patients with degenerative lung diseases. An inhalable vaccine will confer both mucosal and systemic immunity, and it’s more convenient to store and distribute and could be self-administered on a large scale. So while there are still challenges associated with scaling up production, researchers believe this is a promising vaccine worthy of further research and development.

Infographics of the week – Two infographics this week from an excellent report by GWI titled “The Consumer Dilemma: Health and Wellness. A report on the latest health and wellness trends in the US. The first highlights what consumers are cost-sensitive about, and the second is a great graphic showing, by age cohort, which apps or tools consumers are using to track their overall health. Some excellent data in this report. You can find the full report here:

Image Credit: GWI: The consumer dilemma: health and wellness
A report on the latest health and wellness trends in the US. Accessed 7/5/2022
Image Credit: GWI: The consumer dilemma: health and wellness
A report on the latest health and wellness trends in the US. Accessed 7/5/2022

Self-Powered Implant Tracks Spinal Fusion Healing

Conn Hastings brings us this article in Medgadget, where he reports that engineers at the University of Pittsburgh created a self-powered implant that can track spinal healing while also providing mechanical support. The device can be 3D printed to fit a given patient perfectly, and the mechanical properties can also be easily tuned to customize for each situation. The spinal fusion cage contains a triboelectric nanogenerator that creates electricity when the spine pressurizes it. This powers an onboard sensor that measures the pressure on the cage, which indicates spinal healing.

Why it’s important – Spinal fusion cages are often inserted by surgeons to provide support after fusion surgeries. However, these tend to be off-the-shelf solutions that are not particularly tailored for individual patients. This latest technological innovation aims to improve on that by not just making the design more customizable but also by introducing a self-powered sensor that provides information on spinal healing. So far, the researchers have tested the device in human cadavers and hope to progress to animal studies soon. The data reporting technology also has potential in other implantable devices, such as stents and joint replacements.

New platform will speed-develop drugs to combat future COVID-19 variants

A new drug platform for speedily generating anti-viral drugs that target proteins common to all viruses has been developed by a startup named ViroBlock, established by Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) researchers. The research was reported in The Jerusalem Post by Judy Siegel-Itzkovich. ViroBlock has developed a new drug platform for speedily generating anti-viral drugs that target proteins common to all viruses.

Why it’s important – According to a new study by pharma research company Evotec, ViroBlock’s unique technology platform proved its potential to provide solutions for treating existing and emerging viral threats rapidly. The next phase of clinical trials will test the efficacy of this anti-viral approach for humans. The company also has drugs in the pipeline produced by the platform currently being tested that could be effective against other viruses.

Smart Jumpsuit Tracks Motor Development in Children

Conn Hastings is back with an article in Medgadget where he reports that researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland created a smart jumpsuit that can track toddler movements. The idea is to monitor motor development closely and identify any issues early, allowing for earlier interventions. Issues with motor development can be related to broader neurodevelopmental problems, so tracking a young child’s activity can provide a window into their overall development. The suit contains a series of motion sensors. The researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm to identify specific movements children made while wearing the suit, which required some innovation.

YouTube Video Credit: University of Helsinki

Why it’s important – Previously, this required someone to sit and watch the child, or footage of them, making it challenging to track kids for long periods of time. The advantages of the suit include its ability to monitor children objectively over long periods of time and in their natural surroundings, such as at home. The research shows that it is possible to assess an infant’s motor development outside of a hospital or special laboratory setting.

Why you may have a thinking digital twin within a decade

Technology analyst Rob Enderle believes that we will have the first versions of thinking human digital twins “before the decade’s end.” His quote was in an article on the BBC website by Jane Wakefield. In health care, the report outlined the work being done at Dassault Systemes’ who’s Living Heart project has created an accurate virtual model of a human heart that can be tested and analyzed, allowing surgeons to play out a series of “what if” scenarios for the organ, using various procedures and medical devices. The project was founded by Dr. Steve Levine, who had personal reasons for wanting to create a digital twin. His daughter was born with congenital heart disease, and a few years back, when she was in her late 20s and at high risk of heart failure, he decided to recreate her heart in virtual reality.
Boston Children’s Hospital is now using this technology to map out actual patient heart conditions. At Great Ormond Street hospital in London, a team of engineers is working with clinicians to test devices that may help children with rare and difficult-to-treat heart conditions.

Why it’s important – Experimenting on a digital heart also has the knock-on effect of cutting down on the need to test on animals – one of the more controversial aspects of scientific research. The firm now plans more digital organ twins, including the eye and brain. At some point in the not too distant future, we will all have a digital twin that will allow our care teams to personalize treatments to a level we have not seen. The computer processing and data analysis challenges are not insignificant. Still, huge strides are being made in computing power, speed, and precision that will help usher in this new era of medicine.

The first CRISPR gene-editing drug, designed to treat blood disorders, could be on the market by 2023.

Sy Mukherjee in Fast Company reports on a $900 million collaboration between rare disease specialist Vertex, and CRISPR Therapeutics developed the therapy, dubbed exa-cel (short for exagamglogene autotemcel). It has already amassed promising evidence that it can help patients with beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease (SCD), both of which are genetic blood diseases that are relatively rare in the U.S. but somewhat more common inherited conditions globally. Exa-cel reportedly slashed the need for blood transfusions or incidence of severe, life-threatening medical events for months to years after patients received the treatment. New and impressive clinical trial results were announced at a major international medical conference in June. They bolstered the companies’ prospect of producing the first gene-editing therapy of its kind to reach the broader market and patients. All but 2 of the 44 patients with thalassemia hadn’t needed a single blood transfusion in the 1 to 37 months of follow-up after the treatment’s administration. The remaining two had a 75% and 89% reduction in how much blood they needed to be transfused.

“The targets we’re finding with CRISPR . . . are going to guide the drugs coming out in the 2020s.”

Jon Moore, Chief Scientific Officer, Horizon Discovery

Why it’s important – Beta thalassemia is characterized by damaged or missing genes that cause the body to produce less hemoglobin (an essential protein that transports oxygen), potentially leading to enlargement of the liver, spleen, or heart and malformed or brittle bones. It is estimated to afflict 1 in 100,000 people worldwide, and regular blood transfusions are necessary to stave off its most serious effects. While the exact statistics are unknown, SCD is estimated to affect 100,000 people in the U.S. and millions around the world; it is attributed to a defective gene that causes malformed hemoglobin that is stiff, sticky, and sickle-shaped (hence the name) and can thus block healthy blood cells from transporting oxygen around the body.

FUTURE OF MEDICINE Magnetic bandages with stem cells to be used to repair worn joints and mend broken bones

Nick McDermott in The Sun (UK) reports on this research being conducted at Birmingham University. Combining the dressings with an injection of stem cells helps cartilage and bone to regrow, researchers found. The technique sees tiny magnetic particles attached to stem cells — which can turn into bone and cartilage. They are injected before being guided to the damaged areas and activated by the magnetic bandage. In tests on sheep, the treatment sped up bone repair. Human trials are planned. The breakthrough is being presented at the Royal Society summer science exhibition.

Image Credit: The Center Orthopedic & Neurosurgical Care & Research, Portland, Oregon

Why it’s important – The method by which patients recover at home could spell the end of hip and knee replacement operations. The NHS does about 100,000 of each yearly and spends £ 2 billion on treating 850,000 broken bones. (Almost one million hip and knee replacement surgeries are performed in the United States annually, making it one of the most common orthopedic procedures performed today. By 2030, total knee replacement surgeries are projected to grow 673% to 3.5 million procedures per year.) The method worked better than existing treatments and would be “quicker, cheaper and much less painful.”

Henry Ford Health lauds results of completely virtual heart failure study

Health Leaders reporter Eric Wicklund reports that researchers at Henry Ford Health are celebrating the results of a multi-institutional heart failure study conducted entirely on a virtual care platform, saying it could be the model for future clinical studies. Some 476 patients were enrolled in the study through 18 participating health systems between March 2020 and February 2021 – during the height of the pandemic, when every effort was being made to reduce in-person treatments. Researchers connected with study participants through a mHealth app and online portal, where they communicated with patients and collected data from surveys and Fitbit devices. Medications used in the study were mailed to the participant’s home.

“What this study demonstrated is that you can execute a virtual clinical trial with greater efficiency than a traditional, in-person trial.”

David Lanfear, MD, Advanced Heart Failure Specialist, Henry Ford Health

Why it’s important – I’ve written about the use of exponential technologies in virtual clinical trials previously. There are many benefits to virtualizing clinical trials. The costs of conducting clinical trials have risen substantially over time, leading to calls for novel study designs to generate the evidence needed to guide care. Virtual clinical trials could also set the bar for clinical studies by eliminating geographical barriers to patient recruitment, allowing healthcare organizations to find the right participants no matter where they live. And the platform will enable researchers to understand better how patients are affected at home and in their daily lives and routines while gathering biometric and other data in real-time.

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