Technologies to Support Melanoma & Skin Cancer Awareness

“I thought I could beat anything. Then my doctor said: ‘You have skin cancer’ Melanoma is not the most common of skin cancers, but it is the most dangerous if not found in the early stages.”

Jane Green, Author
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Skin cancer is one of the most common cancer types worldwide: one in five people in the U.S. is expected to receive a skin cancer diagnosis. Early detection and treatment are invaluable: almost all skin cancers (both melanoma and nonmelanoma) can be cured if found and treated early. The American Cancer Society reports that across all stages of melanoma, the average five-year survival rate in the U.S. is 92%. The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is 98%. Prevention and detection are the key. One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a decrease in the number of patients visiting dermatologists to check for suspicious moles or changes in their skin. One fact dermatologists pointed out in a recent survey was that about 21% of melanomas might have gone undetected in 2020.

The annual cost of treating skin cancers there is estimated at $8.1 billion: about $4.8 billion for non-melanoma skin cancers and $3.3 billion for melanoma, which is a huge number. Fortunately, digital technologies are on their way to help dermatologists diagnose and treat skin diseases better and more effectively. After reviewing the current research on the topic, here are the key technologies that will help support the practice of dermatology in the coming years.

Teledermatology – Smartphones coupled with super-fast internet connections make it easy to send pictures or footage anywhere, so telehealth solutions appeared naturally in dermatology. The options of teledermatology services, as well as self-care platforms, are soaring. Companies like FirstDerm, Direct Dermatology, iDoc24, and SkinVision all work based on the same principle: they promise patients the option to self-check their symptoms and connect to a dermatologist online for consultation within a very short time. Usually, people can load up their photos to a particular platform, and smart algorithms and/or dermatologists give advice based on them. COVID-19 has given rise to telemedicine practices across the entire healthcare industry, but dermatology has been one of the easiest to adapt to the digital age. As the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology” puts it, COVID-19 has removed “many restrictions that have roadblocked telehealth adoption.” There has historically been an immense shortage of dermatologists in the U.S. A 2017 estimate found that there were only 3.4 dermatologists per 100,000 people nationwide, and the average wait time to see one of them is 32.3 days. Even with all the obvious checks in the “pro” column—affordability, convenience, and accessibility—teledermatology still isn’t perfect. So, it’s essential to understand what conditions are best treated with teledermatology and which require an in-person visit.

Primary Care Physician Office – The DermaSensor is a handheld objective skin cancer sensing device that utilizes both pulses and light and spectroscopy to non-invasively identify information about a skin lesion at the subcellular level. More specifically, this device uses Elastic Scattering Spectroscopy (ESS), which measures and records photon scattering patterns as they reflect off different cellular structures following the input of quick bursts of light. ESS technology has been validated in more than 30 clinical publications that have demonstrated this technique’s utility in analyzing the macroscopic structure of both cellular and subcellular particles. Since malignant lesions scatter light at different intensities, the DermaSensor algorithm, derived from thousands of spectral samples of pathologically verified lesions, will immediately categorize a skin lesion as “Higher Risk” or “Lower Risk.” The DermaSensor device is intended to be used by primary care physicians in annual patient visits to check for suspicious skin lesions or changes in the skin since the last visit. PCPs will be able to use DermaSensor™ as an adjunctive tool to assess skin lesions better and determine whether an additional evaluation is needed.

Image Credit:, Accessed 5/4/2022

High-resolution, whole-body imagingExplicitly designed for dermatology, the VECTRA WB360 whole-body 3D imaging system from Canfield Scientific captures the entire skin surface in macro quality resolution with a single capture. The fully integrated software allows clinicians to map and monitor pigmented lesions and distributed skin diseases. Other applications include documenting pigmented lesions, psoriasis, and vitiligo.

Image Credit: Canfield Scientific

Wearable sensors – The clip-on QSun can detect UV exposure using five LED displays to indicate UV index. Once you shake it, it’ll let you know your UV index. That’s your measurement of how powerful ultraviolet radiation beaming from the sun is. The iOS and Android-friendly wearable keeps track of how long you have been out in the sun before you start to burn. When your time is up, it’ll vibrate to let you know that you should get in the shade. The QSun’s AI considers skin type to help determine the time that should be spent out in the sun. The Shade disc-shaped device is packed with sensors that can measure UVA and UVB rays and are even sensitive enough to do that with indoor light. The iOS and Android compatible wearable uses a magnetic clasp to wear on pretty much any piece of clothing, and it’ll keep you protected for five days before you need to power it up. If you like your wearables invisible, LogicInk will keep you safe in the sun with its Logic UV temporary tattoo. You stick the tat to your skin and watch its two rings throughout the day. There’s no phone or smartwatch involved. Simply keep your eyes on the tattoos. The smaller inner ring tells you how harsh the sun is by changing from white to purple. The outer, larger ring will turn bright pink from purple when you’re getting close to burning your skin.

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The dermatology app environment – Over the past few years, developers have created smartphone apps that help users monitor moles and lesions for any signs of progression to skin cancer. Popular apps include the following:

  • UMSkinCheck – The University of Michigan launched a free app that guides users through a complete home skin check exam. This app also offers the opportunity to create a mole library. This will enable people to compare and track any skin changes over time.
  • MoleMapper – The Oregon Health & Science University developed this app. It allows users to take photos and gather measurements of any moles on their bodies. Similar to UMSkinCheck, the app will enable users to take regular pictures of their moles to facilitate change tracking over time.
  • Miiskin – This app also allows users to take pictures to track their moles over time. Users can also pay for a version that lets them track large areas of skin. This may help them identify new marks and moles they might not have seen.
  • MoleScope – This is a high-resolution camera compatible with many different smartphones. This camera uses high magnification and special lighting to take more detailed and better quality photos than other skin cancer apps. It also contains many features that other apps do, such as skin mapping, image management, and regular reminders.
  • SkinVision – This app helps users identify high-risk moles that require further testing. The app classes each photo as either high or low risk. SkinVision also provides advice on the next steps to take.
  • Cureskin – The artificial intelligence-based app was developed by two engineers previously working by Google, and it aims to compensate for the lack of dermatologists in India. It can diagnose six common skin conditions – pimples, acne, scars, dark spots, pigmentation, and dark circles. The user takes a photo, the algorithm analyses the skin issues, the app’s chatbot asks a few questions, and, depending on the inputs, the A.I. recommends an eight-week skincare regimen.
  • Dermatology A to Z – The American Academy of Dermatology developed the Dermatology A to Z, specifically designed to serve consumers looking for skin health information. The app gives users evidence-based, dermatologist-approved health information, insights on diseases affecting skin, hair, and nails, and the latest medical and cosmetic treatments. Utilizing the smartphone’s GPS tracking system, the app can show the UV Index in real-time to fight against the dangers of ultraviolet radiation and find the nearest dermatologist in the area.
  • Eczema Tracker – Through the app, users can check pollen, mold, temperature, and humidity levels for any location, track the flare-up of eczema and get valuable advice on how to control and manage the condition for all ages. Through constant monitoring, patients have the chance to follow what triggers their symptoms and whether their medication can alleviate them.
Image Credit: Eczema

But are these apps accurate? Although the developers of some of these apps claim that they identify problematic moles and lesions accurately, research has shown that this might not be the case. A 2019 article in Trusted Source in the BMJ found several downsides to the available skin cancer apps, including a lack of testing to verify their effectiveness, a shortage of expert input when developing the technology, and issues with the technology itself. More scientific research will help doctors more clearly determine the accuracy of these apps. There are, however, some significant benefits to the regular reminders and the ability to photographically track moles or skin changes. For example, many people do not regularly check their skin. It can also be challenging to remember what a mole looked like last month or six months ago. Apps can provide valuable information to support advice from a doctor.

Where we’re going – Using advanced technologies to reduce the number of skin cancer issues could be crucial in pushing back the disease. Perceived value, trustworthiness, privacy, design, and costs are important barriers and facilitators regarding the use of mobile health applications (mHealth apps) for skin cancer screening, according to study findings published in the British Journal of Dermatology.

Health Tech News This Week – May 7, 2022

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

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Future wearable health tech could measure gases released from skin

Scientists have taken the first step to create the next generation of wearable health monitors. Tatyana Woodall reports on this research in Ohio State News online. A new study suggests that a wearable sensor may monitor the body’s health by detecting the gases released from a person’s skin. This team’s method would allow the technology to sense biomarkers related to metabolic disorders, like heart disease or diabetes.

Why it’s important – Discerning health issues through the skin is the ultimate frontier. This research is still in the early stages, but in six months, they should have proof of concept, and in a year, they’d like to have it tested on people.

Infographic of the week – From an article in Science by Jocelyn Kaiser, this terrific infographic shows how preventative cancer vaccines will work.

Image Credit: V. Altounian, Science

Walmart Health Introduces Telehealth Diabetes Program To Help Businesses Support Employees Through Education and Behavioral Care

To better provide for patients with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes and assist employers and other institutions in supporting the specific health needs of their employees, national telehealth provider MeMD, part of the Walmart Health family, today launched the Walmart Health Virtual Care Diabetes Program. The announcement was made in a press release from the company. Available as a standalone or as part of a comprehensive medical and behavioral telehealth program, the Walmart Health Virtual Care Diabetes Program was developed for employers and payors to help their employees and members close gaps in diabetes management among employees and their families through early intervention, which could lead to better health outcomes. Robert Gabbay, M.D., chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association, said the partnership with Walmart Health helps to increase education and access to clinical care to more effectively manage diabetes.

“Our aim is to empower patients with the most up-to-date diabetes education and clinical care so they can take control of their health. Our program focuses on a patient’s physical and mental health, which also helps employers maintain healthier workforces and drive down overall healthcare costs.”

John Wigneswaran, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Walmart

Why it’s important – More than 37 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, and its prevalence is expected to grow 54% by 2030. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), fewer than 20% of people with diabetes in the United States meet recommended treatment management goals, costing employers more than $20 billion per year. And Walmart’s reach into communities where access to health care can be problematic helps ensure that underserved populations get access to this critical program.

Researchers Using AI and Apple Watch ECGs to Detect Weak Heart Pump

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have created an artificial intelligence algorithm that can use single-lead ECGs taken by the Apple Watch to find patients who have a weak heart pump, according to research data shared this week at the Heart Rhythm Society conference. Juli Clover reported on the research in her Mac Rumors article. The study included 125,610 ECGs collected for six months from 46 states and 11 countries. Each person submitted many ECGs, and the cleanest readings were used for the algorithm. Several hundred of the participants had clinical testing to measure pump strength, and that data was used to determine whether the Apple Watch could detect an issue.

YouTube video credit: Mayo Clinic

Why it’s important – A weak heart pump, or left ventricular dysfunction, is an issue that affects two to three percent of people around the world and up to nine percent of people over age 60. Like atrial fibrillation, another heart issue the Apple Watch can detect, a weak heart pump can have no symptoms. It can also be accompanied by symptoms that include racing heartbeats or shortness of breath. Researchers plan to launch global prospective studies to do further testing in more diverse populations to demonstrate the benefit of the single-lead ECG feature in the Apple Watch.

University of Sydney researchers create sensor bracelet for hand-impaired persons

From Adam Ang in MobiHealthNews, researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Computer Science have developed a 3D-printed sensor bracelet to enable people with hand impairment to use computers and play video games. The bracelet works by picking up subtle movements in a user’s wrist when they move their fingers. From the sensors, these movements are transmitted via Bluetooth to a computer program which then interprets, classifies, and adapts them using machine learning.

Image Credit: University of Sydney

Why it’s important – Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders affecting a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. About 50% of people living with this condition find speech difficult or impossible, while two-thirds have trouble moving one or both arms. The researchers also want their computer program translated into a free mobile app version.

FDA clears wearable 3D breast ultrasound for cancer screening

A company called iSono Health, which aims to make personalized whole-breast imaging accessible to all women worldwide, has received FDA clearance for its automated, wearable, 3D breast ultrasound, the company announced Tuesday. Michael Schroeder reported on the announcement in MedCity News. In just two minutes, the portable system automatically scans the entire breast, independent of operator expertise, and offers 3D visualization of the breast tissue, according to the company. The technology is integrated with machine learning models that provide clinical decision-making support.

Image Credit: iSono Health

Why it’s important – “A portable and automated whole breast ultrasound augmented with machine learning would be the most practical technology to reduce breast cancer mortality globally, specifically in countries with limited resources,” said Dr. Mohammad Eghtedari, a breast radiologist and an assistant professor at University of California San Diego. The technology would also provide another breast cancer screening option for younger women who are not eligible for mammograms or women who otherwise lack access to mammograms.

How patient-on-a-chip tech could be the future of drug discovery

Testing drug compounds on a chip designed to mimic human organs sounds closer to science fiction than reality, yet the technology already exists and is already being put to use. Ben Hargreaves in PharmaPhorum online writes about how the technology could provide more accurate safety predictions and even discover new treatments. The advance in technology has allowed organ-on-a-chip technology, which uses microfluidics to mimic the physiology and functionality of human organs on a chip. This technology could more accurately reflect drug development in the human body by incorporating multiple cell types and introducing microfluidic channels that can provide a controlled nutrient fluid flow or concentration of the drug that the organ is exposed to. A patient-on-a-chip comprises a collection of several different miniaturized, three-dimensional organ-on-a-chip (such as liver, brain, etc.) interconnected by a blood-like circulation.

Why it’s importantAs I highlighted in a previous post, the advantage provided by these connected organs-on-a-chip is in being able to detect better the toxicity of drugs that could be missed by mice studies and generally provide an overall more accurate response to a drug’s pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics in the human body. There’s still work to be done to prove the efficacy of the chip approach. But the research looks promising and is moving rapidly. So I would expect that we will see broader technology adoption in drug development soon.

Matricelf Moves Closer to Curing Paralysis with In-house 3D Printable Human Stem Cells

Israeli regenerative medicine firm Matricelf has reached a new milestone in developing its 3D printed neural implants for paralyzed patients with spinal cord injuries. Hayley Everett reported on the developments in her article on 3D Printing Industry. The firm has successfully produced its own in-house induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from human peripheral blood cells, which will be combined with a unique hydrogel to form 3D printed implants which could potentially cure paralysis. Founded in 2019, Matricelf leverages a patent-pending 3D bioprinting technology that has been under development at Tel Aviv University (TAU) for the last decade in the lab of Professor Tal Dvir, one of the founders of the Matricelf and the firm’s Chief Scientific Officer.

Image Credit: The stages of Matricelf’s 3D bioprinted spinal cord process. Image via Matricelf.

Why it’s important – By combining their self-developed iPSCs with a unique thermo-responsive hydrogel, Matricelf will produce 3D printed neural implants that could enable patients with spinal cord injuries to walk again. The 3D printed implants allow the regeneration of damaged tissues within and around the spinal cord using a cellular and ECM component originating from individual patients. The firm is currently gearing up to enter into human trials with its 3D printed spinal cord implants in 2024, which they believe could provide a potential cure for paralysis within just a few years.

Curebase thinks the future of clinical testing is decentralized and raises $40M to prove it

Curebase provides the infrastructure — physical and digital — for distributed clinical trials and will be doubling down on its success with a new $40 million funding round. Devin Coldewey reported on the new funding in his TechCrunch article. Curebase combines an app-based experience for the patients with a supervised and standardized process on the provider side to ensure that the data is as good in a decentralized study as it would be in one conducted at a single location.

“We put trained principal investigators in charge of each study. We see every site, who performs what, there’s incredible data transparency.”

Tom Lemberg, Founder and CEO, Curebase

Why it’s important – As I’ve written before, clearly there’s value here, as the company has seen significant growth (it’s done 50 studies so far, with the yearly number tripling or more each year it has existed) and now attracted significant strategic funding from pharmaceutical company Gilead. The funding will enable further expansion in a general sense for Curebase, activating partnerships at more institutions and hiring the people necessary to oversee the trials that will use them.

How New Technologies Can Support Mental Health & Wellness

“Mental health problems don’t define who you are. They are something you experience. You walk in the rain and you feel the rain, but you are not the rain.”

Matt Haig, Author & Journalist
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In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2019, 4.7% of adults aged 18 years or older reported regular feelings of depression, and 11.2% reported frequent feelings of worry, nervousness, or anxiety. Forty percent of Americans with a 12-month history of severe mental disorders do not receive treatment. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased mental health care needs while simultaneously restricting access, with unknown long-term consequences. From August 2020 to February 2021, the CDC described an increase in the proportion of adults reporting recent symptoms of anxiety or depression from 36.4% to 41.5%, with the fraction saying unmet mental health care needs increasing from 9.2% to 11.7%. Among children and adolescents, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits for those aged 5 to 11 years and 12 to 17 years increased by 24% and 31%, respectively, compared with 2019.

Image Credit: Mental Health America

Mental health issues have shed much of the stigma they carried three decades ago, and parents and adolescents are more at ease when discussing the subject among themselves and seeking help.

“We envision a world where technology understands when someone is going through a depressive phase or panic attack and provides support in their time of need.”

George Eleftheriou, Founder and CEO, Sentio Solutions

Mental health is moving far beyond the psychiatrist’s couch. Technological advancement has pushed digital therapeutics to the forefront of convenience—in people’s pockets, on their laptops, and even within Facebook messenger. And with that, the category expands to include a suite of wellness products and services. It’s a new ecosystem that sees individuals relying on a wide range of tools—chatbots, apps, and digital support groups—to combat modern-day issues such as burnout, loneliness, and anxiety. Combined with traditional medical models, it encompasses a holistic approach to psychological wellbeing. So, reviewing the current research, here are the major technologies that can support mental health and well-being.

Telehealth and Virtual Therapy – Tech is redesigning traditional care by improving access and customizing the experience. Virtual therapy apps such as TalkSpace, BetterHelp, and Amwell give patients the ability to call, text, and video teleconference with professional counselors on their schedule and in the comfort of their own homes. These frictionless options, often a fraction of the price of clinic appointments, serve individuals with time constraints or those in rural areas who lack access to care. Online platforms such as Rethink My Therapy, which offers unlimited therapy for $60 a month, particularly appeal to millennials who want their medical appointments as easy as ordering in dinner. Millennials are far more likely to address their mental health than generations prior, with seven out of 10 saying they feel comfortable seeking help.

Other virtual therapy apps center on counselor matchmaking and addressing specific patient needs. Regain specializes in professional couples therapy, and Pride Counseling serves LGBTQ individuals, while Henry Health targets black men. The newly launched Ayana connects marginalized communities with therapists from their culture, background, and race. Other virtual therapy apps center on counselor matchmaking and addressing specific patient needs.

“I think we all want for there to be great ways to see our doctors remotely… but when you move to online, you have to think about the modality of treatment, and whether it’s going to be effective.”

Christina Farr, Omers Ventures

Wearables – Mental wellness wearables such as headsets and bracelets slowly see traction, though many are still in the early stages of clinical trials. The Muse brain-sensing headband helps you get the most out of your meditation practice by giving you real-time biofeedback about what is going on in your mind. The Muse is not some dystopian headset trying to alter your brain. Instead, its makers, InteraXon, want to train you to modify it yourself. The routine is simple. You put the Muse headset on, and you complete the breathing exercises to the sound of waves (neutral), storms (bad), and tweeting birds (good) which indicate how focused and calm you are. If your mind is too active, the Muse gives you feedback to help you clear your thoughts.

Image Credit:, Accessed 5/1/2022

Korean startup YBRAIN has raised $4.1 million to develop hardware for brainwave monitoring and brain stimulation for mental health professionals. The startup’s MINDD SCAN headset is a wireless EEG system that screens visualizes, and processes brain activity in real-time. Traditional EEG scans typically take an hour, while MINDD SCAN takes care of the examination and ensuing analysis in five minutes. YBRAIN’s second product, the MINDD STIM headband, helps activate communication between neurons in the cerebral cortex using electrical stimulation, which is beneficial for conditions like depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Sweden startup Flow Neuroscience has raised $1.1 million to develop a brain stimulation headset that can treat depression without medication. Similar to the YBRAIN device we discussed earlier, the Flow Neuroscience device sends gentle electrical signals to the brain’s frontal cortex, which activates brain cells. Early results appear promising. In a trial, 23% of users overcame depression entirely, and 41% felt significantly better after six weeks of using the headset alone. Flow provides a CBT app that helps introduce positive lifestyle changes as well to maximize patients’ chances of recovery.

Image Credit: Flow Neuroscience

Feel has raised $1.8 million to develop a wristband that assists CBT therapy by identifying emotions. Feel’s technology monitors skin electricity conductance, heart rate, and temperature throughout the day and relays this data to machine learning algorithms that translate it into emotional patterns. The connected mobile app provides personalized recommendations based on users’ emotional states. For example, if you’re feeling anxious and agitated, your heart rate increases, and skin conductance changes suddenly. Feel’s wristband relays this information to the app, which suggests a calming breathing exercise. By doing the exercise, your body will feel calmer, promoting a clear emotional response as well. Feel has created a mental health program combining this feedback mechanism with remote therapist sessions and homework tutorials that help practice self-help techniques. The startup offers its programs through health plans and employers.

Fitbit and Apple Watch – Fitbit has a Relax app on its Blaze and Ionic models. The app is a breathing exercise that can last for 3 or 5 minutes and is designed to help the user slow down breathing and heart rate. It’s a quick yet still efficient exercise to find a few minutes of calmness every day. It also shows the progress you have made over time and how much you could reduce your heart rate during the exercise, which guarantees that you come back to it day after day. While you can’t quite track mental health on Apple Watch, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t features that can help with anxiety. For example, Apple has the Breathe app onboard. Deep breathing is one of the most straightforward tools to lower your body’s stress levels. In layman’s terms, when you breathe deeply and slowly, it sends a message to your brain that everything is OK, and the brain doesn’t need to release epinephrine (adrenaline) to fuel your fight or flight response. In other words, it helps relax you.

Founded in 2015, startup Somatix has raised $7.5 million to develop real-time gesture detection technology that helps in the behavioral and physical monitoring of patients. The startup’s platform uses sensors in commercial off-the-shelf smartwatches, smart bands, and IoT connected devices to track gestures in real-time and recognize physical and emotional indicators. Gesture data is sent to the cloud, combined with user-specific information like calendar appointments, contacts, and social media posts, and analyzed by machine learning algorithms to find significant behavior patterns.

The mental health and wellness app environment – Mindfulness and meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm, and female-focused Sanity & Self offer audio tracks to relax listeners and strengthen mental resilience. Frequently, they’re paired with breathing exercises, visual aids, and journaling guides. Israeli social network Wisdo connects individuals struggling with mental conditions, as well as those overcoming difficult emotional situations. Some apps take their cues from entirely different genres, evidenced by the ever-growing anti-anxiety gaming space. Nearly a million people have played SuperBetter, an app that gamifies mental health upkeep. Players accrue points by persevering through stressful situations, completing breathing exercises, and breaking bad habits. Mindstrong is an app that analyzes how users interact with their phones—how they type or scroll—to identify mood states. Its machine learning can reportedly detect a range of potential mental health patterns. It is now being tested on California patients through the state’s public mental health system. Then there’s U.K. Startup Thymia, which has developed a simple set of mobile video games that might, with the help of AI, pick up on depression signals and any office examination, according to the founders. When clinical trials begin later this spring, Thymia will try to improve and even save lives as it alerts doctors to warning signs they might otherwise miss. The Thymia games, downloadable free from its site, are minimalist. They involve simple tasks in whimsical natural settings; in one, a player tries to track bees buzzing around sets of flowers. But the machine is gathering critical information. Mental health advocates also generally worry that cheaper app-based approaches to mental health could deter insurance companies from paying for human doctors. Thymia founders say that this is one of the reasons patients will not be allowed to use the service themselves and instead must go through their clinician. The company says Thymia does not share data with third parties, including insurers. is a terrific site that reviews over 600 behavioral health apps. It was created by researchers at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Health System. What I like best about the site is the ability to use various filters to examine the apps’ privacy policies. John Moore of Chilmark Research looked at those. And of the 600+ apps, only 458 had a privacy policy. Of those, only 426 declared a data use and purpose. Of those, only 251 let you delete data. And of those 251, only 22 meet HIPAA requirements. Bottom line: be careful with your personal information on these apps. Mental health apps have worse privacy protections for users than most other types of apps, according to a new analysis from researchers at Mozilla. The apps with the worst practices, according to Mozilla, are Better Help, Youper, Woebot, Better Stop Suicide,, and Talkspace. The AI chatbot Woebot, for example, says it collects information about users from third parties and shares user information for advertising purposes. Therapy provider Talkspace collects user chat transcripts.

“It’s just really been there for me during a lot of my recovery. When you go to therapy, everyone’s kind of looking at the clock… Through the day, if I needed to talk to her, I could just text her.”

Tiffanie Mouzoon, TalkSpace user, Axios interview 5/2/2022

ChatbotsChatbots are also on the rise. Woebot is an AI-enabled “robot friend” who looks like Wall-E and engages users through uplifting or sympathetic conversations. The adorable digital therapist is now available in 120 countries, serving more than half a million people. Woebot is a “fully automated conversational agent” developed by Woebot Labs in San Francisco. The app’s daily check-ins began with a question about where you are and what you’re doing but didn’t push with open-ended questions. Instead, it asked you to choose a quick emoji that describes your feelings. Over time, Woebot charts those emoji responses to help visualize trends and then shares that chart with the user. Next is Wysa, a playful artificial intelligence penguin that operates on iPhone and Android platforms.

“[Digital mental health] is a $500 billion category over the next decade.”

Sandeep Acharya, Founder, Octave Health

Where we’re going – Mental health tech will move into the mainstream as cultural norms continue to shift. The widespread use of smartphones means that every person carries a supercomputer that can be used for personalized mental health care. Millennials’ embrace of convenient treatment, as well as interest in self-care, will transform how employers, universities, and local governments offer subsidized care. The ongoing public conversation on toxic workplaces and burnout is already pushing big companies to take action and realize that prevention is more affordable than treatment. In the coming years, expect more well-being tools that work in conjunction with medical care. The new consumer might find themselves weekly teleconferencing with a therapist, then relying on a meditation app during moments of stress. Or maybe they’ll wear a bracelet that will warn them when a panic attack is forthcoming. The future will be full of intrusive and feel-better tech readily available at an individual’s fingertips.

Health Tech News This Week – April 30, 2022

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

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AI technique narrowed to only propose candidate molecules that can be produced in a lab

Pharmaceutical companies are using artificial intelligence to streamline the discovery of new medicines. Machine-learning models can propose new molecules with specific properties that could fight certain diseases, doing in minutes what might take humans months to achieve manually. Adam Zewe reports on a new approach from MIT researchers that constrains a machine-learning model, so it only suggests molecular structures that can be synthesized. The method guarantees that molecules are composed of materials that can be purchased and that the chemical reactions between those materials follow the laws of chemistry.

Why it’s important – Compared to other methods, their model proposed molecular structures that scored as high and sometimes better using popular evaluations but were guaranteed to be synthesizable. Their system also takes less than one second to present a synthetic pathway, while other methods that separately propose molecules and then evaluate their synthesizability can take several minutes. In a search space that can include billions of potential molecules, those time savings add up. The work is fascinating because it could eventually enable a new paradigm for computer-aided synthesis planning.

Infographic of the week – I love this graphic representation of how technology disrupts the human needs equation from Rock Health.

Image Credit: Rock Health

A multi-organ chip with matured tissue niches linked by vascular flow

Engineered tissues can be used to model human pathophysiology and test the efficacy and safety of drugs. Yet, to model whole-body physiology and systemic diseases, engineered tissues with preserved phenotypes need to communicate physiologically. In an article in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the authors reported on the development and applicability of a tissue-chip system in which matured human heart, liver, bone, and skin tissue niches are linked by recirculating vascular flow to allow for the recapitulation of interdependent organ functions.

Why it’s important – The development of multi-organ chips is another move forward in developing whole-body digital twins that will model and predict responses to drugs and therapies in the future. In this case, the interlinked tissues maintained their molecular, structural, and functional phenotypes over four weeks of culture, recapitulated the pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic profiles of doxorubicin in humans, allowed for the identification of early miRNA biomarkers of cardiotoxicity, and increased the predictive values of clinically observed miRNA responses relative to tissues cultured in isolation and to fluidically interlinked tissues in the absence of endothelial barriers.

Cartoon of the week – Everyone’s exhausted with the COVID-19 pandemic. I love this cartoon from Wiley Miller.

Image Credit: Wiley Miller, 2022

U.K. Hospital Trials Brain Implant to Treat Parkinson’s

A hospital in the U.K. is the first to implant a brain device to reverse the symptoms of Parkinson’s – and its test patient calls it “amazing.” Surgeons at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, England, are implementing a tiny deep brain stimulation (DBS) device into the skull. An article in Newsweek and provided by Zenger News reported on the project in which the implant overrides the abnormal brain-cell firing patterns caused by Parkinson’s.

Why it’s important – Traditional operations for Parkinson’s involve implanting a reasonably large battery into the chest with wires that run under the skin through to the top of the head. The new DBS system, the smallest that has ever been created, involves a tiny battery system for the device implanted into the skull. It takes just three hours to carry out the new operation, about half the time it used to with the larger battery. For more on technology and Parkinson’s disease, read my post from last week.

Many hospital executives don’t have a digital strategy

Many healthcare organizations are spending a great deal of time on finding new digital solutions, but many aren’t sure about the options they have chosen. That’s a key takeaway from a new report on healthcare technology by Panda Health, a digital marketplace for health systems. The company, which evaluates health vendors to help hospitals find the right partners, was founded by CentraCare, Gundersen Health System, and ThedaCare.

Image Credit: Panda Health, Hospital Digital Health Technology Report: 2022, Accessed April 27, 2022

Why it’s important – The hospitals that had digital health strategies found themselves better able to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report suggested. Hospitals with comprehensive digital plans were more likely to move forward with digital health solutions during the pandemic than those without strategies (71% to 41%).

How Google could own healthcare

Google’s response to the pandemic is a microcosm of how the company intends to lead the entire healthcare industry: helping people stay as healthy as possible through wellness care and managing the journey to receive care when needed. Adam Dorfman reports on Google’s strategy in his article on VentureBeat. Google, like Apple, has an advantage in personal healthcare: a data platform tied to devices. Hardware, though, is the key to Google’s foray into health. Devices, ranging from Chromebooks to Pixel phones to home devices, provide the means for Google users to manage their data and for Google to monetize it. The second part of Google’s healthcare strategy is to own the patient journey to getting care. And here, Google is the undisputed Big Tech leader. The company has positioned itself as the default resource for people to research symptoms and access care. Google influences every phase of the patient journey, from awareness to consideration.

Why it’s important – I’ve written on the challenges Big Tech faces in targeting healthcare earlier. Google will continue to move into healthcare using devices and software/data analytics to expand its reach. Google will also benefit by attracting more advertisers (engagement and volume are like gold to online advertisers).

Researchers create AI model to predict pediatric no-shows

Kat Jercich from Healthcare IT News reports that a team from Boston Children’s Hospital and Yonsei University used local weather information to help forecast the possibility of patients missing scheduled appointments. By adopting a data imputation method for patients with missing information in their records, developing an interpretable approach that explains how a prediction is made, and exploiting local weather information, the team created a model identifying 83% of no-shows at the time of scheduling.

Image Credit: NPJ Digital Medicine Online, Accessed 4/29/2022

Why it’s important – No-shows cost the industry approximately $150 Billion per year in the U.S. alone. And as the researchers pointed out, “no-shows” can negatively impact patient health and hospital and clinics’ resource utilization. For this study, researchers noted that their model showed minimal predictive performance differences across racial groups. And of course, other health system leaders have pointed out that no-shows can be reduced via different technologies such as telemedicine and patient engagement platforms.

How Leveraging Exponential Technologies Will Virtualize Clinical Trials

“Clinical trials are the most expensive part of developing a drug. And, it’s very hard to do a clinical trial testing the new drug’s interaction with every other drug that might be out there.”

William F Feehery, CEO of Certara
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Traditional clinical trials are equivalent to billions of dollars and years of hard work with no guarantee for the new drug to be approved by regulatory bodies, not to speak about the dangers of testing medication on animals or humans. According to CB Insights, on average, it costs $2.6B to research and develop a successful drug and takes 10+ years to come to market. It’s estimated that in-vivo testing (testing on animals and humans) accounts for more than 75% of the total cost, with recruitment alone being one of the most significant barriers to drug development — only 6% of clinical trials are ultimately completed on time.

Then there’s the issue of clinical effectiveness. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), medication ineffectiveness ranges from 38 to 75% for various illnesses ranging from depression to osteoporosis. The primary cause is each individual’s genetic makeup. It is so diverse and their interaction so unique that medicines designed for the “ideal patient” may not be appropriate for the “actual patient.”

Amid a global health crisis, the challenges only multiply: Covid-19 interrupted an estimated 80% of non-Covid-related clinical trials. One way to modernize the drug testing process is by applying technologies to the traditional framework, such as online platforms to seek out participants. An alternative method is to build an entirely new setting. That new setting leverages the multiplier effect of several exponential technologies to virtualize the clinical trial process.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve written on several of the critical topics before in my “Straight Talk” series of posts. Here are the major ones:

For this post, I want to focus on two additional areas recently getting attention: digital twins and in-silico trials. These are generally lumped together. But for this review, I’ve chosen to keep them separate.

As part of the move to personalized medicine, researchers are interested in developing digital twins that could integrate known human physiology and immunology with an individual patient’s clinical data in real-time, then produce predictions of what would happen during various medical events. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a single person where every known medicine for that person’s illness can be tested. This will allow the best treatment to be determined. It can even monitor the virtual “person” and notify you if a medical condition develops as a side-effect enabling preventive actions. As a result, the digital twin has numerous applications across multiple therapeutic areas in healthcare.

It’s been reported that 66% of healthcare executives expect increasing investment in digital twins over the next three years. This is because digital twins improve healthcare organization performance, discover areas for improvements, provide customization and personalization of medicine and diagnosis, and enable the development of new medications and devices.

If we return to the list of exponential technologies above, digital twins use all of them to create a complete picture of an individual’s vitals, medical state, response to drugs, therapy, and the surrounding environment. Companies are creating digital twins to specifically look at chronic diseases like diabetes, where a chronic diabetes patient’s lifestyle, daily food habits, and blood sugar data are analyzed. The model notifies the patient about prescriptions, dietary habit modifications, medical consultations, and so on.

YouTube video credit: TEDx, Perth, Jacqueline Alderson

Another excellent example of the advancement of the field is the Oncosimulator project. The In Silico Oncology Group is developing an in silico experimental platform, as well as an advanced medical decision support tool called Oncosimulator, in collaboration with several research centers in Europe and Japan to optimize cancer treatment. The oncosimulator is an integrated software system simulating in vivo tumor response to therapeutics within a clinical trial environment. It aims to support clinical decision-making for individual patients.

YouTube video credit: VPH Institute

Several companies have created digital twin representations of human organs. For instance, Hewlett Packard Enterprise collaborated with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausannes (EPFL) on the Blue Brain Project, using its supercomputer to develop digital models of the brain for scientific purposes. Siemens Healthineers offers a Digital Twin model, and Philips offers their own virtual heart. Dassault Systèmes launched its Living Heart Project in 2014 to crowdsource a virtual twin of the human heart. The project has evolved as an open-source collaboration among medical researchers, surgeons, medical device manufacturers, and drug companies. Meanwhile, the company’s Living Brain project is guiding epilepsy treatment and tracking the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. The company has organized similar efforts for lungs, knees, eyes, and other systems.

YouTube video credit: Dassault Systèmes

Although digital twins have a promising future in health care, the full impact of the technology will be determined by its capacity to integrate knowledge into accurate medical advice at scale. Better data, new interactions between patients and providers, and a regulatory framework to confirm these promises will be required to support this transformation.

In-silico trials simulate the effects of a new treatment using virtual populations to supplement or even partially replace in vivo testing. Researchers can use modeling and simulation to predict trial outcomes before advancing to real-world clinical trials and ultimately design studies that are more likely to succeed. Virtual populations can diversify the biological variability of traditional trials and enable the exploration of irregular phenotypes that would be difficult to recruit for. Control or placebo arms in trials can be simulated so that real-life patients who need treatment are guaranteed to receive it. This helps encourage potential subjects to enroll in the first place. Finally, in silico methods can lead to more exploratory research outcomes that might not be feasible with conventional trials. For instance, a recent in-silico trial looked at the same virtual population twice to see how the presence or absence of a secondary risk factor affected treatment.

“You can run an in-silico Phase II trial on 10,000 virtual subjects, rather than being limited to let’s say 10 or 20 or 50 real human subjects.”

YouTube video credit: WTF Health, Berlin, November, 2018

The technology is mainly early-stage, but it has recently seen increasing adoption from medical device and pharma players. Using statistical models of disease progression, researchers can better simulate clinical outcomes for a given cohort of patients, down to the level of how specific traits impact treatment. This could result in a hyper-personalized approach to assessing a patient’s fit for a given intervention.

In-silico technology, though, is not without its drawbacks. For one, using computer-generated patient populations relies on real-life, historical data for modeling, making it tricky to test for unexpected or novel side effects to treatments. Instead, in-silico trials might be more suited to test a treatment’s efficacy (i.e., to validate “expected” results). Soon, in-silico testing will primarily be used to augment or optimize traditional in-vivo testing rather than replace it altogether. Watch the regulators too. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also picked up on the potential of in-silico trials, and it’s actively supporting the development of virtual models – for the testing of new medical devices. The FDA and the EUA in Europe are creating frameworks outlining best practices for collecting and analyzing data like digital evidence. And the FDA is already planning for a future in which more than half of all clinical trial data will come from computer simulations.

YouTube video credit: Novadiscovery, July, 2021

Big tech has a vital role to play here. In 2019, Verily, the health and life sciences company under Google parent company Alphabet, announced it was moving into the clinical trials space. Last month, Amazon Web Services announced a collaboration with Thread Research intended to decrease clinical trial costs while improving research access and data quality. And the Apple Watch has been used in a variety of studies, recent and current, both to investigate the efficacy of treatments (in areas where the watch’s efficacy has already been satisfactorily demonstrated), as well to further investigate the watch in other use cases. Watch for new partnerships with Google, Amazon, Apple, and others to gather and collect data to support in silico clinical trials.

After reviewing the current literature, I would sum up the benefits and drawbacks of virtual clinical trials like this:

  • Benefits
    • Larger number of trial subjects
    • Decreased costs
    • No consequences for either animals or humans
    • Better patient engagement
    • Can lead to more exploratory research outcomes
  • Drawbacks
    • Not compatible with all types of clinical trials
    • Access issues
    • Difficult to test for unexpected side effects
    • Credibility factor
    • EHR interoperability challenges

While completely simulated clinical trials are not feasible with current technology and understanding of biology, their development would be expected to have significant benefits over current in-vivo clinical trials. Under the right conditions, they could rapidly supplant traditional in-person approaches and dramatically enhance the scale, data collection, geographic range, cost-effectiveness, and speed of clinical trials. Certainly, decentralized clinical trials are here to stay. As we’ve seen in other areas of health care, the last 24 months have crystalized the potential of the virtualized research model, driving a rate of deployment and progress that might otherwise have taken 5-10 years to materialize.

Health Tech News This Week – April 23, 2022

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

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Mayo Clinic to launch staffing tool app to find ‘right nurse for the right role’

Mike Millard reports in Healthcare IT News that Mayo is working with KLOC HEALTH to develop the mobile, on-demand scheduling tool to help it predict staffing options more accurately and flexibly. Mayo Clinic has entered a know-how agreement with the startup to co-create an on-demand tool that can help match nurses for immediate, short- and long-term assignments based on variable data such as availability, location, certifications, skill sets, and interests. The goal is to enable real-time communication with nursing staff to help find “the right individual, for the right position, at the right location and at the right time,” according to KLOC HEALTH.

Why it’s important – Innovations like these are coming just in time, as beleaguered nurses are worn down and struggling after more than two years of pandemic stress. One recent survey found that as many as 90% of nurses are considering leaving the healthcare profession due to job dissatisfaction and burnout. Mayo Clinic nurses will be empowered to build their own profiles on the tool and offer real-time feedback on their performance, job satisfaction, and peer reviews.

Infographic of the week – Estimated amount of data created on the Internet in one minute in 2021. Any bets on what this will look like at the end of 2022? (Vote in the poll below)

Image Credit: Statista
A Minute on the Internet in 2022

After reviewing the infographic from Statista above, how much data per minute do you think will be added compared to 2021? (Select your choice in one of the boxes and press “vote” when you’ve made your selection.)

NHS England announces plans for £240M federated data platform

In the EMEA edition of Healthcare IT News, Tammy Lovell highlights this NHS platform is intended to be “an ecosystem of technologies and services.” It will be built around five major use cases: population health and person insight, care coordination, elective recovery, vaccines and immunization, and the supply chain.

Why it’s important – The virtual database takes data from various sources and converts them to a standard model, providing a single data source for front-end applications. This can facilitate access to sensitive health data, offering a potential solution to address the issue of siloed health data and barriers to data sharing.

CRISPR pioneer expects to see gene-edited babies within 25 years

It’s been ten years since CRISPR gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna published the landmark paper that landed a Nobel Prize for her and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier. The researcher already sees advancement toward some of its loftier goals. The Seattle Times’ Angelica Peebles interviewed Doudna in this article.

“Over the next 25 years, it’s entirely possible. When I think about 25 years ago and how much progress has been made, that’s extraordinary. I don’t imagine things are going to be slowing down from here, then it’s probably a very real possibility.”

Jennifer Doudna, PhD, University of California at Berkeley biochemist and founder of the Innovative Genomics Institutes

Why it’s important – In an email following the interview, Doudna said she is “not advocating for human germline editing, simply stating that it is likely to happen in the next 25 years given the direction of research and technology development. It often takes decades for new technology to impact the whole research landscape or actual applications. It’s extraordinary that CRISPR, within a decade, is already there. Is there more work to be done? Of course. There’s always more.”

Fujifilm develops AI tech for predicting Alzheimer’s progression

Adam Ang in MobiHealthNews reported on this clinical trial, which has shown that it can predict AD progression with 88% and 84% accuracy in American and Japanese patients, respectively. The AI predictive technology was built using Fujifilm’s advanced image recognition technologies. Using both AI and deep tech, atrophy patterns as seen on 3D MRI brain images were extracted and calculated from the hippocampus and the anterior temporal lobe, both regions that are strongly correlated with the progression of AD. From these patterns, AD progression is predicted.

Image Credit: Fujifilm Corporation

Why it’s important – Despite advances in AD treatment in recent years, many clinical trials have not been successful, given the low percentage of patients who progress from mild cognitive impairment to AD within two years. Many of such patients remain unchanged even if placed under a placebo. Moving forward, the partners seek to predict the speed of patients’ progression to AD and investigate the possibility of improving the success rate of their clinical trials by excluding patient participants who do not progress to AD and reducing the gap in the distribution of progression speed between control and treatment groups. They also plan to conduct more clinical trials soon.

Does Health Care AI have a Credibility Problem?

A great post by John Halamka, M.D., president of Mayo Clinic Platform, and Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform. The authors argue that many physicians ignore the recommendations provided by machine learning algorithms because they don’t trust them. A few imaginative software enhancements may give them more confidence in an algorithm’s diagnostic and therapeutic suggestions.

Why it’s important – While developers continue to provide innovative AI tools that have the potential to redefine the practice of medicine, most physicians and nurses do not have the background in data science required to grasp what’s “under the hood fully,” one reason why many hesitate to incorporate the diagnostic and treatment recommendations coming from these algorithms. The authors provide two ways this dilemma can be addressed. A must-read post from two of the best in the business.

Samsung Medical Center goes mobile with hospital admission process

More reporting from Adam Ang on news that Samsung Medical Center has introduced a mobile admission process to simplify patient hospitalization. According to the hospital, it now takes five steps – down from 10 – to get admitted to SMC. A patient will first receive access to the mobile admission site via text message. They can select available rooms, complete a COVID-19 questionnaire and test, and sign administrative forms. After this, the patient can proceed to the center’s payment or registration desk, where they will receive an ID wristband and hospitalization guide leaflet. Once received, they can be admitted to the inpatient ward.

Why it’s important – SMC says that its new admission process – which has been in place since end-October – takes about five minutes to complete, compared to the average time of 20-30 minutes previously. Aside from providing convenience, the mobile admission process has also minimized the risk of infections, especially from COVID-19, due to minimal physical interaction. The consumer satisfaction benefits from implementing this technology which results in reduced wait and procedure time, allowing them to deliver medical services more quickly, should be considered as well.

Everything You Need To Know Before Getting An RFID Implant

Another great post from Dr. Bertalan Mesko and his team at The Medical Futurist Institute. Here’s what you should know about RFID chips before implanting them into your body.

YouTube video credit: The Medical Futurist

Why it’s important – As with all of their research, this post covers the landscape of implantable RFID chips in considerable detail, highlighting the good, bad, and risks associated with implementing this technology on a broad scale. A great read!

Hologram doctors beamed to space station to visit astronauts

In 2021, a team of hologram doctors was “holoported” to space to visit astronauts living aboard the International Space Station, NASA has revealed in a new post. The hologram teams, led by NASA flight surgeon Dr. Josef Schmid and Fernando De La Peña Llaca, CEO of software provider Aexa Aerospace, were the first humans ever to be “holoported” from Earth to space. Chelsea Gohd reported on this in her article on The medical teams holoported to the station on Oct. 8. Using the Microsoft Hololens Kinect camera and a personal computer with custom Aexa software, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who was on board the station, had a holo-conversation with Schmid and De La Pena’s teams. The holograms of the doctors were visible live in the middle of the space station.

Image Credit: ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet

Why it’s important – Even though this might seem like just an exciting story to a “space geek” like me, many NASA innovations eventually find their way into the practice of medicine here on earth. And if you can make the technology work at the distances highlighted in the article, imagine how useful this would be in remote areas of the planet.

CDC launches new infectious disease forecasting center

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially launched a new center to forecast infectious disease outbreaks. The Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics is “the equivalent of the National Weather Service for infectious diseases,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. Nicole Westman covered the story in her article on The Verge. Along with experts in data analytics and disease modeling, the center will also have communications specialists on staff to interpret the information for the public.

Why it’s important – The CDC has never had a dedicated infectious disease forecasting program. It has spent the past two years struggling to compile and distribute information about the spread of COVID-19 promptly. Researchers at the center have already produced data helping improve understanding of the omicron variant of the virus, showing that it caused less severe outcomes than the delta variant in the U.S. The challenge will be whether this creates another layer of burden on efforts to communicate effectively.

Can Robots Save Nursing Homes?

The pandemic has given new urgency to developing robots and ‘virtual assisted living’ that can help care for aging adults, physically and emotionally. John Leland reports on a program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in his NY Times article. The robot program in Duluth is just one of several newly energized efforts to use robots and other technology to solve some of the problems in nursing homes and assisted living facilities — or to help people stay out of them. The trend began before the pandemic, but Covid-19 gave it new urgency. With $2 million from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Dr. Khan plans to place two robots in eight nursing homes operated by Monarch Healthcare Management. This for-profit company has about 40 homes around the state. One robot, a two-foot-tall model called NAO, priced at about $12,500, will lead classes in yoga, tai chi, and strength training. The larger robot, Pepper, which costs about $32,000, will socialize, tell jokes and play games with residents.

“Robots are going to play a major role in reminding us to take our medications, keeping us socially engaged, helping us if we fall and can’t get up, navigating getting food delivered to the home. Toilets will give you a checkup a day and tell you if you’re not taking your pills or getting nutrition. Pretty soon your toilet will be talking about you.”

Joseph F. Coughlin, AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Why it’s important – The title of the article is clearly click-bait. However, for specific repetitive and low-skilled tasks, there is a place for robots in assisted living facilities. The question is: how far do you go? The use of robots in nursing homes raises a range of ethical issues. Who should get access to the robots’ extensive monitoring data — only the residents and doctors, or should their families also have it? And will the robots ultimately diminish human-to-human contact, an essential part of care? On the plus side, unlike human workers, robots never get in a bad mood or tire of having to repeat themselves. On the negative side, staff concerns about whether robots will replace their jobs have prompted executives to be cautious about the broad implementation of the technology. We can probably learn a lot from the experiences in Japan, where the use of companion robots is much more prevalent.

These hospital robot vulnerabilities were promptly caught and killed

Staying with the robot theme, Zachy Hennessey in The Jerusalem Post reported that Cyber security start-up Cynerio, specializing in healthcare Internet of Things (IoT) security solutions, discovered five vulnerabilities that affect commonly used robots found in hundreds of hospitals worldwide. According to the company, the group of vulnerabilities – referred to as JekyllBot:5 – can be used to disrupt the delivery of medication or supplies, impede staff, and remotely surveil patients and doctors. Following Cynerio’s discovery, the manufacturer of the robots in question, Aethon, has released several patches to mitigate the vulnerabilities.

Why it’s important – While cybersecurity threats are generally front-of-mind for health systems around the world, often less attention is paid to IoT-connected systems like intelligent autonomous robots, which are designed to handle healthcare-related tasks such as distributing medication, cleaning, and transporting hospital supplies. The robots leverage radio waves, sensors, cameras, and other technology to open doors, take elevators and travel throughout hospitals unassisted without bumping into people and objects. However, the technology that enables the robots to move around the hospital independently makes their vulnerabilities dangerous in the hands of a potential attacker. This is something that should be added to the checklist for review in cybersecurity plans for every organization.

Hospital Robots Are Helping Combat a Wave of Nurse Burnout

It’s a robot trifecta this week. Khari Johnson reports in Wired that since February, the nurses at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, have had an extra assistant on their shifts: Moxi, a nearly 6-foot-tall robot that ferries medication, supplies, lab samples, and personal items through the halls, from floor to floor. After two years of battling Covid-19 and related burnout, nurses say it’s been a welcome relief. Moxi is one of several specialized delivery robots that has been developed in recent years to ease the strain on health care workers.

“In 2018, any hospital that was thinking about working with us, it was a special project for the CFO or innovation project about the hospital of the future. What we saw over the last two years is that almost every single health care system is thinking about robotics and automation or has robotics and automation on their strategic agenda.”

Andrea Thomaz, CEO, Diligent Robotics

Why it’s important – The simple things Moxi does can make a difference. It can save nurses the 30 minutes it might take to go from the fifth floor to the basement to pick up medication that can’t go through the tube system from the pharmacy. And picking up after-hour meals for patients is one of Moxi’s most popular tasks. Since two Moxi robots began operating in the halls of Mary Washington Hospital in February, they’ve given workers back approximately 600 hours of time.

I’ve written on the topic of robotics in health care before. You can read that post here:

How New Technologies Can Support Patients With Parkinson’s Disease

“Parkinson’s is very hard to diagnose. So when I finally went to a neurologist, and he said, ‘Oh, you have Parkinson’s disease,’ I was completely shocked. I miss singing every day. I can’t sing anymore. My voice doesn’t work. I have Parkinson’s disease, and it sometimes takes my words away from me.”

Linda Ronstadt, Singer Songwriter
Image Credit:

Parkinson’s Awareness Month is observed in April and is an opportunity to increase awareness about the ailment and its symptoms, as well as to support patients. Parkinson’s is a long-term disorder where the central nervous system degenerates, affecting the motor system. Motor symptoms like trembling, stiffness, and rigidity are usually associated with Parkinson’s disease. Symptoms typically occur slowly. One side is often affected first, but as Parkinson’s disease progresses, both sides are affected. Technology has improved life for people living with Parkinson’s Disease over the past decade with new wearable, monitoring, or assistive technology.

Image Credit:

As symptoms of Parkinson’s disease change and progress, many people with the condition find themselves struggling with tasks they once performed with ease. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when finding solutions to these daily dilemmas and frustrations. Existing technology and inspiring innovations are helping people living with Parkinson’s disease manage symptoms now—and create hope for the future. Here are a few of the most exciting and innovative technologies showing real promise.

Technology to support gripping – With Parkinson’s disease comes many motor symptoms, including tremors, rigid muscles, and instability. Enter PopSockets, an accessory for a phone that offers a secure grip, easy mounting options, and a built-in stand. Attach one to the back of any mobile device to more easily text, talk, take photos or use Parkinson’s disease apps.

Image Credit:

Technology to assist with typingBigBlu Kinderboard is a specially designed keyboard for Parkinson’s patients with large keys. This is a wireless keyboard that has large keys. It is a suitable typing device for Parkinson’s patients as the bold, large numbers and letters make it easy to type. The size of this keyboard is more than a regular keyboard because of the large keys. Vision board keyboard is a large keys keyboard in black color, and the letters are painted white. The big Track-Ball mouse is the biggest trackball mouse you will ever see. This mouse is designed for Parkinson’s patients who have trouble using a regular mouse. The left and right clicks are placed behind the trackball so that you can avoid wrong clicks. You can set the speed to use it more conveniently.

Image Credit:

Technology to assist with speaking – Many people with Parkinson’s disease experience speech-related symptoms, such as stuttering and a much lower speaking volume. It’s also common to not produce clear speech regularly and feel like your speech is either extremely slow or very fast. SpeechVive is an in-ear device that helps people speak louder and more clearly, especially in busy places with background noise. SpeechVive looks exactly like a hearing aid and sits discretely in the ear. It works by playing an inoffensive background sound in the ear as they speak and as they hear the stimuli, they naturally, speak up louder and with more articulation. Then, as they stop talking, the background noise immediately turns off.

YouTube video credit: Speechvive

Technology to assist with swallowing – Trouble swallowing is a common problem for people with Parkinson’s disease, occurring in up to 80 percent of cases. Swallowing problems can lead to drooling, increased risk of pneumonia, and difficulty eating. One of the best ways to improve swallowing is to swallow more at home as an exercise. The problem is that most people with Parkinson’s Disease, their caregivers, or healthcare providers are usually unaware of the presence of dysphagia until later stages when the disease progresses and dysphagia gets more complicated. True Angle, a Canadian company, has developed a wearable device called Mobili-T®, which is composed of a wireless device that is placed under the chin and an app that provides real-time biofeedback on a mobile device. The device’s beauty is that it allows the patient to perform these swallowing exercises at home.

Image Credit: True Angle Medical

Technology to assist with walking – About one-third of people with Parkinson’s disease experience freezing episodes—sudden, short blocks of movement that primarily occur while trying to walk. Visual cues have been shown to help trigger movement to prevent and overcome freezing. LaserCane, for example, projects red or green laser lines on the ground in front of you, encouraging you to take longer steps and steadying your gait. PathFinder is truly among the next generation of assistive devices. It’s a simple device that attaches to the toes of shoes and provides visual cues in the form of green laser lines, which are helpful to people who feel unsteady on their feet. It marks out each step, so even people with a freezing gait can move with confidence. The lasers can be adjusted manually, so they match the natural length of the person’s steps. Currently, the PathFinder is only available in Europe, but the company will ship anywhere in the world. It retails for around $460. Although it may look like a simple back brace, Calibrace is more than a simple assistive device. It’s improved posture and balance long-term instead of just functioning as a temporary measure. It’s designed for people experiencing neuromuscular disorders, including those from Parkinson’s disease.

Image Credit: Ustep

Technology to assist with eating – For the millions of people with hand tremors and irregular hand movements caused by Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, spinal cord injuries, or just old age, using utensils can turn an enjoyable meal into a frustrating experience. Eatwell is a set of tableware created by a young designer named Sha Yao. Although it seems like a standard set of flatware and dishes, Yao designed it specifically for people with cognitive, motor, and physical impairments. The dishes are made of bright colors, which have been proven to stimulate the appetite, and are slanted on the bottom to allow for easier scooping of food. The spoons match the curve of the bowl and plate exactly and feature a curved shank to make them easier to grip and a special head that won’t move even if jarred by hand tremors. All the dishes are equipped with anti-tip features, including a secure, rubberized base. Liftware Steady and Liftware Level are specialized eating utensils consisting of a handle and a detachable utensil head (available in a soup spoon, normal spoon, fork, or spork options). Liftware Steady’s handle has an onboard computer that detects tremors and then adjusts the utensil head to move in the opposite direction. In contrast, Liftware Level has internal motors that can change its position to accommodate larger movements such as hand or arm twists. As a result, both devices keep their utensil heads level in the face of unintentional movements.

YouTube video credit: Verily

Technology for fall protection – Technology company Tango has recently put out a new personal safety belt that effectively protects people from sudden falls. Many people with Parkinson’s disease have issues maintaining stability and often feel unbalanced or unstable. Tango Belt is a new device that fits securely around the hips and will deploy an airbag immediately before impact if it senses a fall is imminent. This protection is designed to prevent broken hips, and studies have shown that it reduces the impact of a fall by 90 percent. The technology found in the belt is highly accurate in detecting falls.

Image Credit: TangoBelt

Technology to assist with sleeping – Insomnia is another common scourge of the 10 million Parkinson’s sufferers globally, more than three-quarters of whom have sleep-related symptoms, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Sleep can be affected by uncontrolled shaking which wakes patients up, while another factor is a lack of a dopamine, common in people with Parkinson’s. The medication apomorphine is normally used to replace dopamine, lessening symptoms such as shaking and stiffness. But when taken orally, the drug can cause dopamine to spike and then drop, leading to muscle spasms. A device similar to an insulin pump that delivers continuous apomorphine throughout the night could solve the problem, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Smartphone apps for patients with Parkinson’s disease – The smartphone is one device that can support people with Parkinson‘s disease. The apps work hand in hand with wearable sensors to track, record, and store data. The sensors are integrated into these smartphones to gather information regarding the patient‘s condition and progress. The sensors include those that track finger tapping, memory conditions through playing memory games, walking, and speaking. Below is a list of some apps specifically developed to support those with Parkinson‘s disease:

  • Parkinson mPower app – This app uses sensors in the patient‘s smartphone to measure their balance, gait, and tremor. The app tracks and stores this information anytime the patient engages in certain activities specifically designed to generate these details.
  • DAF Professional – This is an app for Android and iOS devices. With this speech therapy app, Parkinson‘s disease patients can slow down their speech, making it sound clearer to people around them.
  • Parkinson Home Exercises – This is a video app for android and iOS devices downloadable from Google Play or Apple Store. It features Parkinson‘s-friendly exercises that target posture, flexibility, walking, and balance.
  • Lift Pulse – This app for iOS and Android, initially designed for research purposes, can significantly help PD patients and caregivers. Through algorithms and sensors built in the patient‘s phone, the app recognizes, tracks, records, and calculates the extent of the individual’s hand tremor. (This app may not be available in all regions)
  • Parkinson‘s EasyCall – People with PD can easily make phone calls with this smartphone app. (This link is for the Android version)
  • Parkinson’s LifeKit – Parkinson’s LifeKit is a suite of tools to track dyskinesias and tremors, physical movement (including voice and central nervous system), cognitive function (including memory and mental agility), and emotional state, and medication phases.

Technology can support people with Parkinson‘s and improve their quality of life. However, a technology designed to help people with neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease should be more user-friendly than the average technology. Providing those with Parkinson’s disease with such technology goes a long way in enhancing their independence.

Health Tech News This Week – April 16, 2022

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

Image Credit:

Breakthrough‘TACTIP’ 3D Printed Fingertip Could Give Prosthetics a “Human Sense Of Touch”

Scientists at the University of Bristol have developed an artificial fingertip with the potential to allow amputees to ‘feel’ objects through prosthetic limbs. Paul Hanaphy reported on the developments in his post on 3D Printing Industry. Formed from a series of 3D printed papillae, akin to those found just beneath the surface of human skin, the team’s ‘TacTip’ device can sense shapes before relaying this data in the form of artificial nerve signals.

Image Credit: University of Bristol

Why it’s important – The team says that the neuroscience and robotics fields are starting to “converge,” yielding artificial tactile sensory systems that can better ‘sense’ objects upon contact. With further R&D, the researchers say their synthetic fingertip could revolutionize the world of robotics or help improve the grip of those with prosthetic hands worldwide.

Infographic of the week – Many Americans are concerned about being able to afford basic living expenses for their families. At least half say they are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about being able to afford gasoline or other transportation costs (71%), unexpected medical bills (58%), or monthly utilities like electricity (50%).

Image Credit: Kaiser Family Foundation, Health Tracking Poll (March 15-22, 2022)

Deploying digital health tools within large, complex health systems: key considerations for adoption and implementation

In a post on Nature Digital Medicine, the authors propose a framework of nine dimensions along which clinically validated digital health tools should be examined by health systems before adoption and propose strategies for selecting digital health tools and planning for implementation in this setting. Key stakeholders who draw from experience in four large organizations—Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston, MA), Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Boston, MA), Atrium Health (Charlotte, NC), and Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City, UT)—convened to identify common lessons from the implementation of digital health tools within these systems.

Image Credit: NPJ Digital Medicine

Why it’s important – By evaluating prospective tools along these dimensions, health systems can determine which existing digital health solutions are worthy of adoption, ensure they have sufficient resources for deployment and long-term use, and devise a strategic implementation plan.

Geisinger’s MyCode Community Health Initiative hits milestone, enrolls 300,000 participants

Geisinger’s precision health project, MyCode, has enrolled 300,000 participants, reaching a significant milestone for the program. With DNA sequence and health data currently available on nearly 185,000 of these participants, MyCode is the most extensive healthcare system-based study of its kind. In a press release on their website, Geisinger reported that to date, more than 3,100 participants who are at increased risk for potentially life-threatening conditions like hereditary breast and colon cancers, familial hypercholesterolemia, and heart disease had received genomic risk results. These results allow patients to work with their care providers to prevent or detect disease early, potentially leading to better health outcomes.

Why it’s important – Providing these clinically actionable results to patients empowers them to take action that may lead to better health outcomes for themselves and their families. Analysis of MyCode data has also contributed to several groundbreaking discoveries, including a rare genetic variant that protects against obesity.

At small and rural hospitals, ransomware attacks are causing unprecedented crises

Marion Renault in Stat reports that the reality of being locked up by ransomware is no longer a concern reserved solely for major health systems, once a primary target. Regional hospitals and specialty clinics are also constantly warding off, and falling prey to malicious cyberattacks as ransomware groups grow more opportunistic. Federal databases detail many small providers — from pediatrics clinics to hearing centers, chiropractors, and child abuse prevention non-profits — caught up in the sweep of attacks targeting the health care system.

“You might think you’re kind of off-the-grid, but that doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible.”

Eric Johnson, Health IT Researcher at Vanderbilt University, Dean, Owen Graduate School of Management.

Why it’s important – Such an attack can be devastating for a health system of any size and scary for anyone relying on its care. But for smaller hospitals and practices, the costs — both to patients and the bottom line — can be incredibly steep. Experts say that small, rural providers are also less likely to be prepared to defend, resolve and recover from a ransomware attack than their larger, urban counterparts. I’ve discussed the topic of ransomware in healthcare in a previous post“. But, the intensity and scale of the attacks are creating real headaches for smaller organizations that might have limited resources to block them.

Aging in place can be so much easier with smart home technology

A great article in The Washington Post by Wendy Jordan describes two very different approaches to implementing technology in the home to support aging in place. Both houses incorporate essentials for safe senior living, including primary bedroom, bath, and living spaces on one level; smooth floors (that would accommodate wheelchairs and rollators); good lighting; and kitchens, baths, laundry, and storage areas designed for safe, convenient use. But when it came to incorporating technology for aging in place, the homeowners took very different approaches. Klitenic opted to start small with a few tech tools. The Galea home is chock full of high-tech enhancements.

“Technology is the ultimate aging-in-place asset if you use it correctly.”

Tom Kamber, Executive Director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP

Why it’s important – As I’ve outlined in a previous post, supporting health, safety and security are important components of successfully aging in place. So are home management systems that maintain a comfortable environment and communication and recreation systems that enable social engagement, stimulation, and entertainment. I love that this article covers both ends of the implementation spectrum, with one couple starting slowly and the other couple going all-in on the technology.

Thyng introduces MedMirror virtual body tracking technology

In a press release, Thyng LLC announced the launch of MedMirror, a freestanding display that uses advanced 3D body tracking to create a patient experience and enhances the digital care journey. MedMirror is an experience that creates a category of Medical Visualisation – one that interactively puts patients at the center of their healthcare experience by utilizing them as the canvas. It can include everything from anatomical visualization to interacting with a favorite character – creating a unique environment that educates, inspires, and uplifts everyone from children to adults.

YouTube Video Credit: Thyng, LLC

Why it’s important – According to the company, the goals of the MedMirror are twofold, to educate patients through an engaging visual medium and to provide inspirational, uplifting experiences. MedMirror puts patients front and center, using their bodies as a canvas to showcase the spatial relationship between body systems and medical conditions. One experience allows patients to stand in front of the MedMirror and view 3D anatomies digitally overlaid onto their body to understand a medical condition better, effectively allowing patients to virtually “see” inside of their bodies. Another experience enables pediatric patients to become a favorite superhero and reduce the stress and anxiety that often accompany a hospital stay.

Can digital therapeutics become profitable?

As more software-based treatments gain FDA clearance, they still face hurdles in getting insurance reimbursement and garnering adoption among patients and physicians. Elise Reuter provides an in-depth look at the challenges in her article on MedTech Dive. While getting FDA clearance was the first step, experts identified several hurdles ahead, including getting physician uptake, building pathways to reimbursement, and, importantly, developing software that patients will want to use.

“There’s a lot of behavioral change that needs to happen across the stakeholders and their mindsets to think about digital therapeutics as a category of its own.”

Maya Desai, Director of Life Sciences for Guidehouse

Why it’s important – While digital therapeutic companies should not be dismissive about partnering with pharmaceutical companies, their goals should also be aligned. As digital therapeutics look to get indications similar to pharmaceutics, they’re also hoping to take a similar approach to insurance reimbursement. That process generally involves garnering real-world evidence showing their products still perform well outside of a clinical trial setting and publishing studies showing that they have not only a therapeutic benefit for patients but also an economic one. Insurers also face the question of whether to cover digital therapeutics as a pharmacy benefit or medical benefit. So far, the former is easier because it offers greater controls, value-based agreements, and less friction for the provider and the patient.

FDA authorizes 1st breath test for COVID-19 infection

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issued an emergency use authorization for what it said is the first device that can detect COVID-19 in breath samples. The Associated Press reports that the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, the FDA said and can be used in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and mobile testing sites. The test, which can provide results in less than three minutes, must be carried out under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.

Image Credit: InspectIR

Why it’s important – The FDA said the device was 91.2% accurate at identifying positive test samples and 99.3% accurate at identifying negative test samples. While the ramp-up to production may take some time, the ability to get rapid results in various locations will be helpful.

This Startup Wants to Get in Your Ears and Watch Your Brain

Born from Alphabet’s “moonshot” division, NextSense aims to sell earbuds that can collect heaps of neural data—and uncover the mysteries of gray matter. Steven Levy writes about this company in Wired magazine (registration required). The startup’s focus is brain health—improving sleep, helping patients with epilepsy, and eventually enriching people’s lives with a range of mental conditions. The idea is to use its earbuds to capture an electroencephalogram, a standard tool for assessing brain activity. A multinational pharmaceutical firm called Otsuka hopes to use NextSense’s earbuds for evaluating the efficacy of medication, not only for epilepsy but for depression and other mental health issues. NextSense plans to submit its device for FDA approval this year, and Emory University is conducting more studies in hopes of developing an algorithm to predict seizures, ideally hours or days in advance.

“We know about our blood pressure, cholesterol, and respiratory system. But the most important organ is our brain. We don’t assess that systematically.”

Allan Levey, Brain Health Center at Emory University

Why it’s important – There is no easy, non-invasive way to observe a seizure, which is a critical step in treatment, both to assess the efficacy of drugs and predict when the next seizure might strike. For years, people have been shifting from tracking their health through sporadic visits to a doctor or lab to regularly monitoring their vitals. The NextSense team is gambling that, with a gadget as familiar as an earbud, people will follow the same path with their brains. Then, with legions of folks wearing the buds for hours, days, and weeks on end, the company’s scientists hope they’ll amass an incredible data trove to uncover the hidden patterns of mental health. That’s the dream. It will take time and more research to get them to that point. But being able to collect real-time data at the point of the patient quickly will provide researchers armed with machine learning and AI tools the ability to monitor and potentially save countless lives.

Bringing Precision to Musculoskeletal Health

A great post by Zach Wynn on A Slice of MIT reviewing the data-driven approach the startup Figur8 is bringing to musculoskeletal injuries. The company founded by CEO Nan-Wei Gong SM ’09, Ph.D. ’13 has created a sensor-based system that can track body movement and muscle activity to quantify the severity of injuries, help doctors make treatment plans, and measure improvement.

“Figur8 is a musculoskeletal diagnostic system. It’s a solution for the clinician and patient to pinpoint the risk of injury, the source of injury, and to quantify recovery in a health category that traditionally doesn’t have a lot of scientific data readily available.”

Nan-Wei Gong, CEO, Figur8
Image Credit: Figur8

Why it’s important – Besides costing less, setting up Figur8 is also faster than setting up traditional systems. For a full-body evaluation, users strap seven sensors on their bodies. To evaluate a specific muscle group or joint, the system works with only one or two sensors. The sensors send data to a mobile app that walks users through a series of movements similar to a physical exam. The system uses a technology called surface mechanomyography, which tracks tiny muscle movements to measure contractions and other muscle activity. A report is then automatically generated showing the differences between a healthy person’s musculoskeletal performance and the user’s.

Drugmakers unite to set digital standards for Alzheimer’s disease studies

Some of the largest drugmakers tackling Alzheimer’s disease and its related dementias are banding together to ensure their pursuits make the best use of the truly massive amounts of digital data that can be gathered from patients as the companies look to track their progress. Connor Hale reports on the effort in his article in Fierce Biotech. In a collaboration being led by the nonprofit Digital Medicine Society, Big Pharma players such as Biogen, Eisai, Eli Lilly, and Merck plan to establish a core set of digital measurements that can be applied in their clinical trials. They will be joined by researchers from Boston University and Oregon Health & Science University, as well as the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

“There’s over 70 different measures of physical activity, and there’s over 50 different measures of sleep. The sad truth that led us to this particular project is that despite the enormous unmet need for high-resolution, high-value measures that can be captured frequently over time, only three of the endpoints in the library are being used for Alzheimer’s.”

Jennifer Goldsack, CEO of the Digital Medicine Society

Why it’s important – The group aims to select and develop the most effective tech-enabled biomarkers—built on data collected from wearable devices or tests that may involve analyzing voice recordings or tracing hand movements—that can help determine whether prospective treatments are actually working to slow the cognitive declines associated with neurodegenerative conditions. By agreeing collectively to quantify the course of the disease in a standardized and patient-centered way—and at a point, before the real competition begins—the drug developers ultimately hope to increase each of their chances of getting treatments through the regulatory approval process and to patients faster.

Will Advancements in Synthetic Biology Benefit Everyone?

“The genesis machine will power humanity’s great transformation, which is already underway. Soon, life will no longer be a game of chance, but the result of design, selection and choice.”

Amy Webb, Author, The Genesis Machine – CEO, Future Today Institute
Image Credit:

Synthetic biology is a relatively new interdisciplinary field of science that combines engineering, design, and computer science with biology. Researchers design or redesign organisms on a molecular level for new purposes, making them adaptable to different environments or giving them different abilities. A recent McKinsey report anticipates applications from this bio revolution could have a direct global impact of up to $4 trillion per year over the next 10-20 years, enabling the production of 60% of physical inputs to the global economy and addressing 45% of the world’s current disease burden. However, for synthetic biology applications to reach their full potential, it’s critical to ensure that access and development of knowledge in this sector, along with the relevant research tools, are distributed in low-resource contexts. This can help to avoid the technology being centered solely in advanced, resource-rich economies and widening inequalities in the global bioeconomy.

We can now program biological systems like we program computers. In synthetic biology, DNA sequences are loaded into software tools—imagine a text editor for DNA code—making edits easy. After the DNA is written or edited to the researcher’s satisfaction, a new DNA molecule is printed from scratch using something akin to a 3D printer. The technology for DNA synthesis (transforming digital genetic code to molecular DNA) has been improving exponentially. Today’s technologies routinely print out DNA chains several thousand base pairs long that can be assembled to create new metabolic pathways for a cell or even a cell’s complete genome. Get used to the term bio-economy because these scientific innovations have fueled the rapid growth of an industry intent on making high-value applications that include biomaterials, fuels, specialty chemicals, drugs, vaccines, and even engineered cells that function as microscale robotic machines. Progress in artificial intelligence has provided a significant boost to the field, as the better AI becomes, the more biological applications can be tested and realized.

“We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before.”

J. Craig Venter, geneticist, biochemist and biotechnology pioneer

In the next two decades, synthetic biology technologies will be harnessed to eradicate life-threatening diseases and develop personalized medicines for individual people and their specific genetic circumstances.

What are some of the current advancements in synthetic biology that will drive this growth? For this post, I’ll focus on the healthcare applications and companies working on them at a relatively high level. If you are interested in exploring the topic in more detail, I’ll provide links to curated articles at the end of the discussion.

  • Faster gene synthesis at a lower cost: Synthesis transforms digital genetic code into molecular DNA, allowing scientists to design and mass-produce genetic material. This is what Twist Bioscience does to form as many as 300 base pairs of DNA. Joining these snippets or oligos together forms genes. The price for oligos and the time to produce them are decreasing—while the length and complexity of base pairs are increasing. Twist’s innovation reduces the need for expensive reagents by a factor of 1 million while increasing the number of genes that can be synthesized by a factor of 9,600. It now costs an average of just nine cents per base pair. The DNA snippets produced by Twist can be ordered online and shipped to a lab within days; the synthetic DNA is then inserted into cells to create target molecules, which are the basis for new food products, fertilizers, industrial products, and medicine.
  • Genome sequencing at a lower cost: The first human genome cost roughly $2.7 billion and took 13 years to complete. Today, you can sequence your genome from the comfort of your home for less than the price of a cheap TV. Nebula Genomics, a spinout from a Harvard University lab run by synthetic biologist George Church, offers to provide a person’s genetic code with “medium accuracy” for $99 or, for $900 more, you could have 100% of your DNA decoded “with ultrahigh accuracy and … over 300 gigabytes of DNA data,” according to the company’s website.
  • Create on-demand molecules: Scientists now use synthetic biology to discover and produce molecules on de- mand. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and the MIT-Broad Institute Foundry proved that new molecules could be rapidly generated for practical use. In a research challenge, teams used artificial intelligence and synthetic biology to deliver six of the ten requested designer molecules in just 90 days.
  • CRISPR-based antibiotics: Antibiotic resistance is rising due to overuse or incorrect application. But a new approach could enable us to tackle antibiotic-resistant infections. CRISPR can be programmed to kill certain bacterial cells that contain specific DNA. Researchers at the University of Sherbrooke demonstrated that a CRISPR-edited bacterium could be used to target an antibiotic-resistant strain of E. coli. Soon, CRISPR-edited probiotic bacteria could be used to treat bladder and skin infections.
  • CRISPR-based therapies: Several trials will test emerging CRISPR therapies in 2022. In Germany, a patient with beta-thalassemia, a genetic disorder that results in low levels of hemoglobin, had the genomes of their blood stem cells edited. Post-treatment, they have not required blood transfusions. Other patients in the trial show normal to near-normal hemoglobin levels. CRISPR is being used to edit T cells, a white blood cell essential for immune system response. A treatment for urinary tract infections, CRISPR-Cas3, combined with three bacteriophages, successfully killed the strain of E. coli responsible for 95% of UTIs.
  • Programmable gene-editing proteins: Scientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have discovered a new class of programmable DNA modifying systems called OMEGAs (Obligate Mobile Element Guided Activity), which could move small bits of DNA throughout bacterial genomes.

What are some of the leading research applications of synthetic biology in healthcare? Here’s a sampling of current research work:

  • mRNA vaccine development: Leveraging the work done during the pandemic to develop mRNA vaccines to protect against COVID-19, both Moderna and BioNTech were researching immunotherapies for cancer. BioNTech is running clinical trials for personalized vaccines for many cancers, including ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and melanoma. Moderna is developing similar cancer vaccines.
  • Genetic screening for pregnancy: New genetic screening techniques that test embryos before implantation are making their way into fertility centers. California-based MyOme and New Jersey-based Genomic Prediction use the genetic sequences of parents, along with cells retrieved during a biopsy, to generate an embryo’s entire genome. Next, they use algorithms to calculate the probabilities of certain ailments.
  • “Body-on-a-chip”: The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is leading a unique $24 million federally funded project to develop a “body on a chip,” including different combinations of organoids. Imagine a computer chip, but with a transparent circuit board that’s connected to a system pumping a blood substitute through it. With it, researchers can poison a mock respiratory system with new viruses, lethal chemicals, or other toxins to see how the body would react and then test potential treatments on living human tissue without harming humans or other animals.
  • Development of synthetic wombs: In an experiment at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers successfully printed and implanted synthetic ovaries in mice, resulting in a successful pregnancy. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia created an artificial womb called a bio bag and used it to successfully keep premature lambs alive and developing normally for 28 days. We are still years away from synthesizing and growing a full-size organic womb—but the bio bag represents an intervention that could help the thousands of premature babies born before 25 weeks each year.
  • Synthetic age reversal: As we age, the sequence might stay constant, but chemical changes do occur to our DNA. Observing those changes could lead to new techniques to halt or reverse age-related diseases. I’ve written on the topic of human longevity previously, and you can read that post here.

How do we ensure that advances in synthetic biology are available to all, not just advanced, resource-rich economies? First, we must correct the perception and narrative firmly embedded in biotechnology at all levels that “open source” means “uncommercialisable.” Unfortunately, this leads to an unwillingness to creatively explore openness as one possibility within a range of Intellectual Property (IP) strategies. Many researchers and The World Economic Forum propose an “open source” approach to sharing these developments. Open source approaches play an important role here because, beyond open licensing, they also encourage collaborative development and sharing of know-how, which is essential to overcome barriers to building capacity and innovation.

“Now that we’re two decades into #synbio, it’s a good time to revisit our founding principles — e.g. what kinds of societies do we want to build and who can participate — all while continuing to mature as an industry.”

Meghan Palmer, Built with Biology Conference, 04/13/2022

Open toolkits like the Research in Diagnostics DNA Collection, designed by many collaborators and distributed through the Free Genes project at Stanford, provide a “ready to go” solution that, with the correct manufacturing practices, quality management systems, and regulatory approvals, could also be used for diagnostics kits. Another excellent example of an open project that has already directly impacted scientific progress is the Structural Genomics Consortium. This public-private partnership has openly released data, materials, and research tools for drug discovery against medically relevant human protein structures to academia and industry for around 20 years, resulting in thousands of collaborations and scientific papers and over 1500 protein structures entering the public domain. The leaders of the consortium continue to push the model further, for example, launching pharma companies that aim to apply an open approach to drug discovery for rare childhood cancers.

“My advice to global leaders and policymakers is to ensure that all countries get a seat at the table and focus on building out more than local or regional policies but also systems for international governance that can adapt to the extraordinary pace of technical and social change in the bioeconomy.”

Dr. Jenny Molloy, Senior Research Associate at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, University of Cambridge

My takeaways from reviewing the synthetic biology book and other resources in the recommended reading/viewing list below:

  • Synthetic biology has the potential to solve pressing issues in healthcare, climate, agriculture, global food supply, etc.
  • The U.S. has no national strategy on synthetic biology. The lack of a comprehensive national plan will put us behind other nations like China and Russia. They have committed considerable resources to develop synthetic biology as a competitive advantage.
  • The regulatory framework in the U.S. is a complicated mess with no clear delineation of who is responsible for what. Competing priorities in the FDA, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Interior, and others will slow the development and implementation of potential solutions to critical needs. And this isn’t unique to the U.S. The European Union, along with the United Kingdom, China, Singapore, and many other nations, approach the governance of synthetic biology in similar ways, using existing biotechnology frameworks. Who’s going to regulate mail order DYI CRISPR kits, for example? (btw, they’re already being marketed online)
  • If you thought the CRISPR patent battle between the Broad Institute and UC Berkeley was contentious, wait until you see the upcoming intellectual property and patent battles around synthetic biology. As Amy Webb discovered in the research for her book, the US government had no plan to manage the coming onslaught of intellectual property battles looming on the horizon.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic resurfaced the inequities in our health system. How do we ensure the advances in synthetic biology are available to all nations – rich and poor alike? Will the “open source” approach proposed by the World Economic Forum take hold? Or will this widen the gap between rich and developing nations further?
  • Ethical issues need to be addressed. Global ethicists have come out against germ-line editing, where changes are passed down to future offspring. But enforcement will be a problematic issue. What about gene editing to increase I.Q.? Or creating “super-soldiers” for future wars? I reported earlier about this website meant to imitate a gene-editing company that specializes in babies. It lets you try what it could be like to order a baby with technology likely to be available soon.
  • Misinformation and disinformation will polarize and politicize the conversation and create barriers to adopting synthetic biology advances. Consider what we’ve already experienced with mRNA vaccine pushback or the blowback to GMO (genetically modified organisms) in the food supply.

There are still many questions about the developments in synthetic biology. For example, what constitutes genetic privacy? And do individuals have the right to keep their genetic data private and secure from third parties? As Amy Webb states in her book: “Within the next decade, we will need to make important decisions: whether to program novel viruses to fight diseases, who will “own” living organisms, how companies should earn revenue from engineered cells, and how to contain a synthetic organism in a lab. What choices would you make if you could reprogram your body? Would you agonize over whether—or how—to edit your future children?” How can we democratize the deployment of synthetic biology to all people instead of just the affluent countries? Now is the time to advance the discussion to the level of public conversation. If we wait to have those conversations, the future of synthetic biology could be determined by fights over intellectual property and national security and by protracted lawsuits and trade wars – thus benefiting no one instead of society as a whole.

Want to learn more about synthetic biology? Here are some links to books and articles that I’ve found invaluable in my research on the topic:

YouTube Video Credit: TWiT Tech Podcast Network, 2/19/2022

Health Tech News This Week – April 9, 2022

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

Image Credit:

Responsive Footwear to Prevent Diabetic Foot Ulcers

To prevent diabetic foot ulcers, research scientists at The University of Texas at Arlington have developed footwear technology that relieves pressure on areas of the feet that experience high stress during walking and other activities. The team has received a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a dual-layer insole apparatus for diabetic foot lesion prevention. The technology was developed in partnership with the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Image Credit: University of Texas at Arlington

Why it’s important – Due to numbness in their legs and feet, people with diabetes often cannot detect and respond to stress-related pain by adjusting their foot loading. This can result in repeated stress to high-pressure foot regions such as the heel or toes and can worsen blisters, sores, and ulcers to the point of severe tissue loss or life-threatening infection. For many, foot ulcers can lead to amputation of a toe, foot, or leg. The removable shoe insole designed by Wijesundara’s team relieves stress by periodically regulating and redistributing pressure across all foot areas.

Medical cartoon of the week – We need to make digital health easier for patients and staff.

Image Credit: Jonathan Marcus, MD, Twitter timeline 4/8/2022

Geisinger, Eisai team up to study use of artificial intelligence for early detection and identification of cognitive impairment that could indicate dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease

Geisinger and Eisai Inc. announced a collaborative effort to study the potential effectiveness of an artificial intelligence (AI) tool in detecting cognitive impairment that could identify dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The research collaboration will study the use of an algorithm trained on a set of de-identified patient data to identify individuals likely to have cognitive impairment. The algorithm, known as a Passive Digital Marker (PDM), was developed and tested by researchers at Purdue University and Indiana University. The Geisinger-Eisai team will evaluate the PDM in Geisinger’s de-identified dataset to determine its potential to detect cognitive impairment, suggesting early signs of dementia.

Why it’s important – The number of people with dementia is growing substantially; more than 55 million people worldwide are living with dementia, and this number is expected to increase to 78 million by 2030. Accurate diagnosis remains a barrier to early and effective treatment; research reviews estimate that between 40 and 60 percent of adults with probable dementia are undiagnosed. If effective, the AI tool could potentially be developed to support the early detection and staging of cognitive impairment and dementia, leading to appropriate additional testing for the clinical, biological diagnosis and treatment of dementias such as AD.

New Technology Could Make Biopsies A Thing Of The Past

A Columbia Engineering team has developed a technology that could replace conventional biopsies and histology with real-time imaging within the living body. Described in a new paper published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, MediSCAPE is a high-speed 3D microscope capable of capturing images of tissue structures that could guide surgeons to navigate tumors and their boundaries without needing to remove tissues and wait for pathology results. The team is currently working on commercialization and FDA approval.

Why it’s important – By capturing images of the tissue while it is still within the body, the technology could give a doctor real-time feedback about what type of tissue they are looking at without the long wait. This instant answer would let them decide how best to cut out a tumor and ensure there is none left behind. The team also realized that by imaging tissues while they are alive in the body, they could get even more information than from lifeless excised biopsies. They found that they could visualize blood flow through tissues and see the cellular-level effects of ischemia and reperfusion (cutting off the blood supply to the kidney and then letting it flow back in).

First autonomous X-ray-analyzing AI is cleared in the EU

Nicole Wetsman in The Verge reported on an artificial intelligence tool that reads chest X-rays without oversight from a radiologist that received regulatory clearance in the European Union last week. The tool, called ChestLink, scans chest X-rays and automatically sends patient reports on those it sees as totally healthy, with no abnormalities. Any images that the tool flags as having a potential problem are sent to a radiologist for review. The tech now has a CE mark certification in the EU, which signals that a device meets safety standards. The company said in a statement that it expects the first healthcare organizations to be using the autonomous tool by 2023.

Why it’s important – Important to note that this is for chest x-rays only at this point. The FDA has cleared autonomous AI devices before, starting with a tool to detect diabetes-related eye problems in 2018 (the same tool received a CE mark in 2013). But autonomous radiology devices are more controversial. Professional organizations have spoken out against the idea: the American College of Radiology and the Radiological Society of North America published a joint letter in 2020 after an FDA workshop on artificial intelligence in medical imaging, saying that autonomous AI wasn’t ready for clinical use. Expect radiologists to continue to fight this type of technology. What will be interesting to watch will be whether payers will choose to reimburse for the use of the technology.

Reversing hearing loss with regenerative therapy

The biotechnology company Frequency Therapeutics seeks to reverse hearing loss — not with hearing aids or implants, but with a new kind of regenerative therapy. The company uses small molecules to program progenitor cells, a descendant of stem cells in the inner ear, to create the tiny hair cells that allow us to hear. As reported by Zach Wynn in MIT News, Frequency’s drug candidate is designed to be injected into the ear to regenerate these cells within the cochlea. In clinical trials, the company has already improved people’s hearing as measured by tests of speech perception — the ability to understand speech and recognize words.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 or 15 years, because of the resources being put into this space and the incredible science being done, we can get to the point where [reversing hearing loss] would be similar to Lasik surgery, where you’re in and out in an hour or two and you can completely restore your vision. I think we’ll see the same thing for hearing loss.”

Jeff Karp, Professor of anesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Why it’s important – Hearing loss can lead to isolation, frustration, and a debilitating ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. It is also closely correlated with dementia. They also believe they’re making significant contributions toward solving a problem that impacts more than 40 million people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions more around the world. Frequency’s work will also advance researchers’ ability to manipulate progenitor cells and lead to new treatments down the line.

If you are interested in online courses in Healthcare Informatics, Strategy, Project Management, and Innovation, check out QuoVadis Learning Systems. These courses were developed by my colleague and friend Thomas Giordano, and his “Plain and Simple” series are excellent introductions to a variety of topics. Excellent course material, reasonably priced and taught by a great instructor. Check them out.