BusinessLife, September 2015. Original article, p57-60.
Ten top health tech innovations
Vital signs monitoring patch
One day, a little sticky patch for monitoring life signs may become standard for anyone who enters a hospital. That’s the hope for SensiumVitals from Toumaz Group, the British semiconductor company, which is currently undergoing clinical trials. “Our product is targeted not at intensive care, but at patients where monitoring is a manual process every 4-6 hours,” says Anthony Sethill, CEO of Toumaz. “We believe there are many clinical situations where continuous monitoring would be more effective clinically, and therefore economically.” For example, up to 30% of patients develop complications after gastrointestinal surgery. Being able to continuously monitor patients would not only mean catching problems quicker, but also that people could go home sooner and have vital signs transmitted remotely. Both these things are likely to increase patient comfort, and save money for the NHS.
Patient-controlled social networks
It’s not quite Facebook, but for people with Crohn’s Disease and other inflammatory bowel conditions, Crohnology.com is a lifesaver. Established in 2011, this network lets users trade information about symptoms and treatments. Crohnology.com is closely monitored by the medical estanlishment as an example of a patient-controlled social network, where people take charge of their own treatments. “This has very quickly become a global community of people sharing information about their conditions. They in turn talk to the clinicians treating them, and that has improved the dialogue globally,” says John Farenden, Director of EY’s ‘Let’s Get Digital’ initiative, which aims to support and accelerate the use of digital technologies in health and social care. “Using basic social media tools, this has made a huge impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people.”
Talk about a literal interpretation of wearable technology: Cyrcadia Health has developed a bra that can detect cancer. The garment is embedded with patches that track changing temperatures in the tissue, which can be indicative of tumour growth. Early trials showed a 87% success rate in detecting tumours, including in dense breast tissue where small lumps can go undetected. The idea behind the garment is not to wear it all the time, but to to provide simpler and more comfortable screening methods than some of today’s more invasive procedures.
It’s the Nespresso of dialysis: Quanta Fluid Solutions is developing a compact, portable dialysis machine that people can use themselves. This could be a significant money-saver for the NHS, as people could have dialysis in the comfort of their home. “A percentage of patients are suited for home-dialysis, once they’ve been trained. We know that would save the NHS about £15,000 a year per patient,” says Martin Hunt, a Director at the NHS’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Hunt heads the NIHR ‘Invention for Innovation’ programme, a translational funding scheme aimed at advancing healthcare technologies. The NIHR, whose funds only go to companies with proof of concept after robust screening, has funded Quanta twice: “Research teams need to take into account not just the medical impact, but also how new devices can provide value for money,” says Hunt. “If you get better patient outcomes, generally speaking, there should be some associated cost saving along the clinical pathway.”
Nanotechnology targeting treatments
Sending microscopic devices into the body to treat illness in a non-invasive manner is a science fiction dream that’s quickly becoming real. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of California successfully delivered treatment projectiles into the stomach of mice, in an effort to explore whether we can do this to treat stomach problems like ulcers or gastritis. A similar principle is behind antibody-drug conjugates, which are already being used to treat patients: a molecule-scale payload of cancer drugs is delivered directly to tumour sites, leaving the surrounding tissue undisturbed.
3D-printed body part replacements
Earlier this year, 3D printing technology from Stanmore Implants was used to create a replacement pelvis for a patient who’d lost his to cancer. The new part could be made more precisely with a 3D printer than standard methods. Another UK company using 3D printing to create body parts is Fripp Design and Research: their technology can create soft tissue organs like eyeballs, noses and ears, all based on scans from the patient. “3D printing now allow us to create new body parts, so the technology is actually no longer the problem,” says Farenden. “The challenge now is how we make best use of it and improve the outcome and experience for patients, as well keeping an eye on cost.” In an effort to make the product more commercially viable, Fripp has become the first company to use 3D technology to print directly in medical-grade silicone.
Imagine a USB stick which contains a whole laboratory – this is Christofer Toumazou’s Lab-on-a-Chip. It may sound impossible, but the tiny device provides quick results to medical tests, and can analyse DNA within minutes. Without the need of a laboratory, Lab-on-a-Chip can reveal how large a dose a patient needs of a particular medication, or whether they’re at risk for genetics-based diseases like diabetes or cancer. The technology, now being developed by DNA Electronics, could one day mean doctors looking into our future to treat us, not just our past. “Tying the genome to different risks associated with cancer is likely to become increasingly significant,” says Sethill at Toumaz. (Toumazou is the founder of Toumaz, but the company is not involved Lab-on-a-Chip.) “You could then use the collected data to understand which drugs give the best results, using millions of data points,” says Sethill, who predicts Big Data and analytics will become increasingly relevant in healthcare prevention.
Tissue repair wands
On Star Trek, they called it a medical tricorder: a device that heals skin and bone instantly. Here on earth, Mark Bass at the Department of Biomedical Science at the University of Sheffield has created a small handheld ultrasonic emitter that accelerates tissue repair. It’s not quite sci-fi, but the device can reduce healing times by up to 30%. That means the patient is more comfortable, and there is less chance of infection. The researchers have been able to reverse certain healing defects caused by diabetes, age and congenital disorders, and hope to soon be able to prevent the formation of chronic wounds.
Video games for stroke rehabilitation
Therapy becomes play when necessary yet tedious exercises are made into a game. Looking to help stroke victims regain functionality in their arms and hands, Limbs Alive has created a Wii-style video game. Over 100,000 people in the UK suffer from strokes each year, and up to 80% never fully regain the use of their limbs. Therapeutic video games is a growing area for the NIHR, says Hunt: “We insist on patient involvement throughout the development process. It’s one thing to have a solution using a tablet computer, but for elderly patients with mobility issues, that may not work for them.” Effective video game therapies can mean reducing the cost of treatment, not to mention making a frustrating processing a little more fun, so the patient is less likely to give up.
Wearable pain relief devices
The relief of chronic pain is a big promise, but that’s what Quell does. This device from NeuroMetrix uses non-invasive nerve stimulation to tackle pain, kicking in within 15 minutes of putting on the device. A single charge provides 40 hours of relief, whether it’s back pain or nerve-related aches.. Quell was a hit at 2015’s CES, the consumer electronics tradeshow usually dominated by the newest phones, but there’s increasingly more crossover between mainstream gadgets and health, says Farenden: “Consumer technology businesses are pushing on with technologies to improve health, as we see with things like Apple Watch and Jawbone.” The jury’s out on whether the cost associated with these gadgets are actually translating to better outcomes: “But we will see people increasingly using those technologies to better understand their own health.”