by Omri Nachmani
The rate of technological advancement has been accelerating at a breakneck pace. Everyday, a new breakthrough threatens to bring us closer to something out of a Huxley novel. Aside from the unsettling (and sometimes frightening) implications of mass unemployment due to automation, or the potential of a new genetic caste system, some scientific and technological achievements are paving the way for a revolution in medicine and healthcare. Here are five technologies that may revolutionize healthcare over the next five years.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Deep learning, a concept central to AI, is the ability of computer algorithms to learn by trial and error with continuously improving efficiency. So far, deep learning algorithms have defeated the world’s top players at chess, Chinese Go, and even Jeopardy. However, this technology also has other applications. Samsung’s Medison uses deep learning to analyze ultrasound images and detect breast tumours with superhuman precision and accuracy. Though initially unreliable, the ability to continuously improve performance gives it a considerable advantage over human-doctor counterparts. Another AI company, EMERGENT, uses the same idea to tease out complex drug interactions by analyzing millions of pharmaceutical databases and individual patient care records, making medicine even more personalized. Perhaps most impressively, IBM’s Watson is capable of reading millions of published clinical articles within seconds, extract the key information, and make an unbiased and evidence-based decision regarding treatment. What potential benefits may we reap If IBM’s Watson is available on every physician’s phone? We will certainly find out.
Gene Sequencing and Editing
The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, costed approximately $2.7 billion at the time. Today, one can sequence their genome for less than $1000. This incredible price drop opens many doors for scientists and healthcare. Deep Genomics, founded by University of Toronto researchers, uses genetic sequencing data along with AI to predict how genetic mutations may affect cells and impact the human body. The power to know one’s genes allows researchers to predict which treatments may or may not work. Such is the nature of precision medicine, where the one-size-fits-all doctrine is thrown out of the window and the focus is you. But why stop there? If a genetic mutation is known, why not eliminate it? In 2015, as a last resort treatment, researchers used the genetic editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to cure an 11-month-old infant Layla of severe leukemia. By re-engineering her immune cells, researchers induced them to attack her cancerous cells. Layla has been cancer-free for over 18 months. Though, with great power comes great responsibility. While genetic engineering lends hope in curing the incurable, it may also spark fears of designer babies and biological warfare. It goes without saying: we need to tread lightly.
In developing countries and rural locations with few health resources or limited funding, labs-on-a-chip may offer a quick and inexpensive way to diagnose and monitor infectious diseases. These circuits, roughly the size of a USB stick, integrate numerous pathology laboratory functions and can detect bloodborne pathogens with high accuracy. US-based DNA Electronics have developed a chip that can detect and monitor the levels of HIV in a patient’s blood, making the management of symptoms more effective. Normally, blood samples have to be sent to a laboratory, taking three days to be analyzed and sent back to a clinician, costing time, money, and resources. In places where those are lacking, labs-on-a-chip offer an effective solution that may just prevent the next global epidemic.
Yes, drones. (why not?) More often than not, effectively responding to global disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes is a problem of logistics rather than will or funding. Sending medical first responders or search-and-rescuers is risky in these hazardous scenarios. Drones offer a way to bypass this challenge. Drones can be used to deliver life-saving medications to remote areas or countries in states of emergency, avoiding the issues of distribution logistics or lack of responders. Companies such as Matternet are already testing the feasibility of a drone delivery network in Haiti to speed up delivery of medicines. Drones may also be used to search for survivors in disasters and other seemingly inaccessible locations. Once identified, the same drones can drop a survival package until further help arrives. Maybe the next first responder you encounter will have the Amazon logo on its propellers.
The same technology that lets you print off your own salt shaker may also one day print a kidney if you’re in need. Take a 3D printer, replace the ink with cells and some suspension fluid and you have yourself a 3D printer capable of printing skin for burn victims or even a new pancreas. Okay, this is more than five years down the road (although it is being researched extensively), but some applications are right around the corner: 3D printed casts, personalized bone replacement parts, pills, and much more. Some companies have even printed brain tumor models using MRI scans giving the surgeon a chance to practice a risky surgery. With 3D printing potentially solving the organ donor crisis and reducing fatal surgical errors, it’s hard not to be excited.
It is important to acknowledge that many of these technologies are in experimental stages. However, it appears that they will pave the way for better, faster, and more precise healthcare. But that’s just an educated guess.