What happened in health care technology this week, and why it’s important.
WHO and partners launch world’s most extensive freely accessible AI health worker
The World Health Organization, with support from the Qatar Ministry of Health, launched the AI-powered WHO Digital Health Worker, Florence version 2.0, offering an innovative and interactive platform to share a myriad of health topics in seven languages at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in Qatar. Florence can share advice on mental health, give tips to destress, provide guidance on how to eat right, be more active, and quit tobacco and e-cigarettes. She can also offer information on COVID-19 vaccines and more. Florence 2.0 is now available in English, with Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and Russian to follow. The project is supported by technology company Soul Machines, which brings avatars to life as autonomously animated Digital People.
Why it’s important – Florence has helped fight misinformation around COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The pandemic has had a significant effect on mental health. It is estimated that 1 in every eight people in the world lives with a mental disorder. Her topics like tobacco and unhealthy diet kill 16 million people yearly, while physical inactivity kills an estimated 830 000. These deaths are due to diseases like cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes that can be prevented and controlled with the proper support. Will a truly useful chatbot come from the WHO to be used globally? I have my doubts, but the message is clear from the WHO: we need to deploy A.I.-based medical technologies as healthcare worker shortages will be with us forever.
Infographic of the week – Three-quarters of Americans give U.S. healthcare affordability a D or F rating, according to a new poll from Gallup and West Health. Over 5,000 Americans were asked to grade the U.S. healthcare system overall regarding affordability, equity, accessibility, and quality. Overall, 44% of Americans gave the entire system a poor or failing grade. One in 3 said healthcare affordability deserved an F.
Specialized smart soft contact lenses can address global issue of glaucoma diagnosis, management
Purdue University published the results of a study demonstrating that the development of specialized smart soft contact lenses that accurately measure intraocular pressure (IOP) in a person’s eye could be the latest answer to stopping glaucoma-related blindness. The new technology is highlighted in a study published in the journal Nature Communications. The study compares Purdue’s technology to the current gold standard and other home monitoring systems. It examines how the Purdue technology can gather vital IOP measurements for 24-hour cycles, even during sleep.
Why it’s important – The technology serves as another option for eye specialists to identify glaucoma, which, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, can steal a person’s vision without early warning signs or pain and affects more than 80 million people worldwide. The only known modifiable risk factor is lowering a person’s IOP, which is difficult to monitor for long periods, particularly during sleep. While exams can be performed in a specialist’s office and at-home monitoring systems are available, they all have limitations. For instance, in-office measures are time-consuming, and current at-home technology is challenging to use, is uncomfortable, and doesn’t gather sufficient data at the proper time periods or over long enough time periods for specialists to use the information to make optimized treatment decisions appropriately.
WORLD-FIRST 3D BIOPRINTED BIOIMPEDANCE CHIPS UNLOCK IN-VIVO SKIN DISEASE MODELING
Regenerative medicine specialist CTIBiotech has partnered with pharmaceutical firm Gattefossé to develop 3D bioprinted skin chips that enable the patient-specific modeling of skin diseases. Paul Hanaphy reports on the developments in his article on 3D Printing Industry. By assessing a tissue’s sebum levels, the oily substance in human tissues that helps our skin barrier to function, the lab-on-a-chip devices can non-invasively model the skin diseases of patients. Using their chips, the firms say it could now be possible to establish a more direct link between lab data and human research and develop more efficient cosmetic treatments.
Why it’s important – While scientists understand the molecule’s role in the body, they haven’t yet managed to draw a straight line between sebum disruption and skin disease in specific patients. The firms have worked together to establish this lab-human data link by creating a 3D bioprinted model based around ‘bioimpedance.’ Widely used to measure health, body composition, and diet, the analysis method sees a current applied to patients to calculate impedance (resistance) and assess if they need to make lifestyle changes accordingly.
A bionic pancreas could solve one of the biggest challenges of diabetes
In a recent trial, a bionic pancreas that automatically delivers insulin proved more effective than pumps or injections at lowering blood glucose levels in people with type 1 diabetes. The bionic pancreas, a credit card-sized device called an iLet, monitors a person’s levels around the clock and automatically delivers insulin when needed through a tiny cannula, a thin tube inserted into the body. It is worn constantly, generally on the abdomen. The device determines all insulin doses based on the user’s weight, and the user can’t adjust the doses. The results were featured in an article by Rhiannon Williams in MIT Technology Review online. A Harvard Medical School team has submitted its findings from the study, described in the New England Journal of Medicine, to the FDA to bring the product to market in the US eventually. While a team from Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital first tested the bionic pancreas in 2010, this is the most extensive trial undertaken so far.
Why it’s important – Type 1 diabetes is a serious condition that causes a person’s level of glucose, or sugar, to become too high because the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin. This hormone keeps blood glucose under control. People with type 1 diabetes need to monitor their glucose levels and take insulin daily. Other types of artificial pancreas exist, but they typically require the user to input information before they will deliver insulin, including the amount of carbohydrates they ate in their last meal. Instead, the iLet takes the user’s weight and the type of meal they’re eating, such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner, added by the user via the iLet interface. It uses an adaptive learning algorithm to deliver insulin automatically. The device could remove the need for a person with diabetes to calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a meal, which is a significant benefit.
Pfizer pays almost $120 million for app that detects COVID from a cough
Pharma giant Pfizer has shelled out nearly US$120 million to acquire a small Australian company claiming to have developed a smartphone app that can accurately diagnose COVID-19 by analyzing the sound of a cough. Rich Hardy covers the story in his article in New Atlas online. For around a decade, the small Australian digital healthcare company ResApp has been working on developing an algorithm that can diagnose respiratory illnesses by simply studying the sound of a patient’s cough. Initially, the system was trained to diagnose pneumonia, but by 2019 the researchers had shown the technology could effectively distinguish asthma, croup, and bronchiolitis. When the pandemic struck in 2020, the team unsurprisingly quickly pivoted to incorporate COVID-19 diagnoses into its cough-recognition technology. By early 2022 the first data from a pilot trial testing the COVID algorithm revealed impressively good results. The trial found the system could accurately detect 92% of positive COVID cases solely from the sound of a cough. The system also recorded 80% specificity, meaning only two out of every ten people screened received false positive results.
Why it’s important – Pfizer believes the COVID-19 screening tool is the next step to potentially provide new solutions for consumers that aim to quell this disease. They plan on refining this algorithm further and working with regulators worldwide to bring this vital product to consumers as quickly as possible.
Stem cell patch surgery to mend spina bifida in the womb
Michelle Roberts brings us this story in the BBC News online. US doctors say they have successfully performed surgery on babies in the womb to repair harmful spine defects using a special, therapeutic stem cell patch method. It is a patch that contains immature cells, called stem cells, that can grow with the baby. Baby Robbie is one of the first humans to have the treatment. The UC Davis team plan to treat about 35 babies as part of their trial. More studies and follow-ups are needed to assess how well the treatment works. Robbie and the other babies will have check-ups to see their progress with skills such as walking and potty training.
Why it’s important – Without treatment, spina bifida can sometimes lead to a range of lifelong issues, including problems with mobility because of nerve damage. In extreme cases, the spinal canal remains open and exposed. If the defect is not closed to protect it shortly before or after birth, it can cause total paralysis of the legs. Surgeons have already used keyhole surgery on babies in the womb to mend the gap. Now the US team has gone a step further, fitting a graft or implant to bridge the repair.
MIT team develops burrowing robotic pill to break through the intestine’s drug-blocking mucus
One of the many barriers to getting drugs where they need to be in the human body lies in the digestive tract, where walls of mucus line the insides of the intestines. This layer can be an especially tricky obstacle for converting large-molecule biological treatments such as insulin into an easy-to-take pill. MIT’s solution? Burrow through it, using a robotic capsule that can tunnel its way through the thick mucus wall. Connor Hale reports that researchers at the university have developed a motorized pill with a spinning auger-like endpiece designed to displace the mucus and deliver its payload directly to the organ in his article in Fierce Biotech. They say it could be developed into a more straightforward method for administering various drugs, such as insulin or the antibiotic vancomycin, which currently have to be given via an injection.
Why it’s important – What the RoboCap does is transiently displace the initial mucus barrier and then enhance absorption by maximizing the dispersion of the drug locally. By combining all of these elements, they are maximizing their capacity to provide the optimal situation for the drug to be absorbed. In the National Institutes of Health-funded study, researchers found their capsule could deliver 20 to 40 times more insulin or vancomycin in animals compared to similar capsules without the mucus-clearing mechanism. Once the drug is released, the capsule passes through the digestive tract on its own, and the study found that the mucus layer reforms after a few hours.
Inflation has digital health companies shifting gears
It’s not the best economic environment for consumer-driven digital health businesses. As Gabriel Perna reports in his article on Digital Health Business & Technology, this has caused some organizations to accelerate a shift toward a business-to-business (B2B) strategy.
Why it’s important – The B2B opportunity is bigger, the margins are better, and the acquisition cost is lower. If you’re B2B and your value proposition is that you can make a company’s members healthier and, therefore, you’ll spend less on them, this resonates even more in an economic downturn. Employers are interested in using digital health solutions to retain talent in a tight labor market. An August survey from the Business Group on Health, a trade group representing 72 Fortune 100 companies and other large public-sector employers, found that expanded virtual health and telehealth services are here to stay for 94% of employers.