The convergence of digital imaging, wireless biosensors, genome sequencing and other digital innovations makes it possible to use portable devices to monitor patient’s vital signs, test for infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria and, virtually digitize the human body to provide information in granular detail, in ways that people never dreamed would be possible.
This information can be integrated with traditional medical data, and constantly updated so that each heartbeat, moment-to-moment blood pressure reading, the rate and depth of breathing, body temperature, and oxygen concentration in the blood, glucose, brain waves, activity, and mood can be continuously monitored. Additionally, every part of the body can be imaged and a three-dimensional reconstruction can be graphically depicted.
From wearable E-skin that can measure heart rate and blood pressure, to paper diagnostic machines the size of a credit card that can give instant readings on blood and saliva samples, labs throughout the world are producing remarkable new technologies. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The following are some examples of where technology and innovation are going to take us in the very near future.
Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) Surveillance
Incorporating RPM in chronic disease management is significantly improving the quality of life for many individuals, helping them maintain independence, preventing complications that naturally emerge from their multiple chronic conditions. All of this reduces emergency room visits, reduces hospital stays and lowers the cost of care.
For patients with dementia who are at risk for falls, RPM technology promotes safety and prevents harm through continuous surveillance. RPM sensors can be affixed to the individual or their assistive mobility devices such as canes and walkers. These sensors monitor the individual’s location, gait, linear acceleration and angular velocity, and utilize a mathematical algorithm to predict the likelihood for falls, detect movement changes and alert caregivers.
Surgeons facing complex surgeries are preparing for such operations by using 3-D printers to replicate parts of the body, enabling them to touch, feel and cut just as they will during actual surgery. The 3-D models are developed using digital data from scans such as MRIs and CTs. At the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA such test runs are being used to practice some of the most difficult surgeries of all — the face transplant, and for treating tumors in vital body parts like the head, neck, and spine.
Advances in Understanding the Brain
At the World Medical Innovation Forum on Neurosciences, sponsored by Partners Healthcare, April 27-29, scientists talked about research into brain circuitry and electrical activity, via available technology, MRI, EEG and PET Scan, combined with landmark genetic discoveries. These innovations in technology now enable scientists and physicians to begin to understand the intricacies of autism, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as well as diseases such as Parkinson’s and dystonia. This work is also unveiling novel approaches to surgery and treatment for epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke. Control of a brain’s activity with light, called Optogenetics is also under study. This technology could have far- reaching benefit to help better understand the complex network of neurons that make up the brain and provide us with insight into how we create thoughts, emotions and behaviors. It could also help detect flaws or deformities in the various neurons in the brain that cause devastating mental disease and disorders.
Nanobots Wandering in our Blood Stream
Experimentation in robotics promises a future where tiny robots could function like our own white blood cells and destroy bacteria and other pathogens inside our blood stream. These miniature robots will use their own sensors, and propulsion systems to perform small tasks like delivering chemotherapy 1000 times more powerful than the traditional drugs in use today, with fewer side effects. There are also cellular repair nanobots that will have the potential to destroy bacteria, carry oxygen, create blood clots for wounds and repair cells.
Instead of taking prescription pills to treat their ailments, patients may one day opt for genetic ‘surgery’ — using an innovative gene-editing technology called CRISPR, (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), to snip out harmful mutations and swap in healthy DNA. First unveiled in 2012, CRISPR is a revolution in genetic engineering and already is generating novel strategies for gene therapy and the genetic study of disease. The technique makes it quick and easy to knock out genes in human cells or in animals and determine their function. This has the potential to speed the identification of new drug targets for disease. Scientists hope CRISPR may one day help rewrite flawed genes in people, opening tremendous new possibilities for treating, even curing, diseases. Researchers are already adapting CRISPR technology to reprogram stem cells to regenerate damaged organs such as the liver and to reprogram immune cells to cure AIDS in HIV-positive patients. The good news is that with CRISPR, we can now turn genes off or on at will, to study normal gene function and understand how genetic defects do their damage at the molecular level. The bad news is that editing genes can cause unethical alterations in the human species that would not be good for anyone.
A new type of blood test is starting to transform cancer treatment, sparing some patients the surgical and needle biopsies long needed to guide their care. The tests, called liquid biopsies, capture cancer cells or DNA that tumors shed into the blood, instead of taking tissue from the tumor itself. When cancerous cells die they release DNA into the bloodstream, typically in very small quantities. A simple blood test could detect these strands of DNA and allow doctors to begin early treatment. The ability to find cancer early could revolutionize treatment of the disease and save lives.Although a lot is still unknown about the value of these tests, they provide the first noninvasive way to repeatedly sample a cancer so doctors can profile its genes, target drugs to mutations, tell quickly whether treatment is working, and adjust as the cancer evolves. Potentially this is a huge advance that could make personalized medicine possible for far more people.
These are only a few of the incredible innovations and technologies that will revolutionize the way medicine is practiced and delivered in the future. Although there are always new conditions and healthcare problems, the promise of such vast innovation is that many of the worst conditions that man suffers will be detected and eradicated.