Medical Tech: 9 New Technologies You Have to See
If you ever want to feel like you’re living in the future, take a look at the latest in health-minded gadgets and fitness-tracking devices. They’re part of one of the most exciting areas of innovation in technology, and are quickly gaining all kinds of capabilities that would have seemed far-fetched, if not impossible, to imagine just a few years ago. The same could be said for the latest in medical technology: the innovations and inventions that make it possible to diagnose diseases, sequence your genome, or manage a chronic condition more quickly an inexpensively than ever before. Read on to learn about nine exciting new pieces of medical technology.
1. A saliva test that can analyze your risk for cancer
Lots of people worry about their risk for cancer, particularly if they have a family history of it. But you can find out your risk for the most common hereditary cancers using a simple saliva test in the kit from Color Genomics. The kit analyzes 30 genes, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, to help users understand their risk of the most common hereditary cancers, including pancreatic, stomach, colon, and prostate cancer.
As Sarah Zhang reports for Wired, the test costs just $249, “cheap enough to leapfrog insurance companies, the traditional gatekeepers of genetic tests.” It’s worth noting that the significance of some of the cancer genes that Color analyzes is uncertain, since researchers haven’t yet determined how much a mutation will affect someone’s risk for a specific cancer. Color can’t offer complete clarity on some cancer gene mutations, but as more research becomes available, it will update customers.
2. A blood test that can detect cancer before symptoms arise
As MIT Technology Review recently reported, the world’s largest DNA sequencing company, Illumina, is forming a new company to develop blood tests that can detect many types of cancer before any noticeable symptoms arise. Illumina’s new company, Grail, reports that at least half of all cancers in the United States are diagnosed in Stage III or Stage IV, which leads to lower survival rates. Detecting cancer earlier increases the probability of a cure and long-term survival, and Grail’s blood tests will use a technology called ultra-deep sequencing to detect circulating tumor DNA in asymptomatic people.
The concept, sometimes referred to as a liquid biopsy, will use high-speed DNA sequencing machines to scour someone’s blood for the fragments of DNA that are released by cancer cells. If DNA with cancer-causing mutations is present, that often indicates that a tumor is forming, even if it’s too small to cause symptoms or to be seen on imaging. The San Diego-based company says that its blood tests should reach the market by 2019, and will be offered through doctors’ offices or possibly through a network of testing centers.
3. An app with your entire genome for $1,000
Grail’s liquid biopsy approach to testing for DNA with cancer-causing mutations is made possible by the technology that’s made gene sequencing inexpensive. Advances in genetic sequencing technology have also made it possible for you to have your entire genome sequenced incredibly quickly and relatively inexpensively. Veritas Genetics has come up with a consumer-friendly way to offer people insight into their genetic makeup, and MIT Technology Review reported recently that the company will give you access to your entire genome in a smartphone app for $999.
The idea of the company’s genome test is to replace every other kind of genetic test, since it can essentially offer all of the answers at once. The results will include all six billion letters of your genome, and they’ll be analyzed by an algorithm to highlight your medical predispositions — including whether or not you have mutations in 150 genes linked to cancer susceptibility. Sequencing your entire genome would replace traditional genetic tests, which are completed separately at a cost of hundreds to thousands of dollars each. Veritas’s app will enable you to share DNA information, and will feature a news feed of medical information customized to your DNA.
4. An app store for genetic information
By now, you’ve probably realized that there are lots of exciting things going on in the world of genome sequencing and genetic testing. Another interesting technology that will make it cheap and easy to learn more about your health works thanks to your DNA. MIT Technology Review reports that a company called Helix is developing the first app store for genetic information. The company’s idea is to collect a spit sample from anyone who buys a DNA app, sequence and analyze each person’s genes, and then digitize the findings to make them available to developers who want to sell other apps.
A user might initially only make one query, such as whether he has a heightened risk for a certain disease, or whether he has the “sweet tooth gene.” But because Helix thinks that it can decode the most important parts of a person’s genome at a cost of just $100, it wants to generate and store data on all 20,000 protein-encoding genes, even if the user is initially only interested in one. That means that as developers create new apps — perhaps one that shows you how you’ll look in 10 years or tells you which celebrity you’re most closely related to — your DNA information will be ready for analysis.
5. A handheld DNA analyzer
Your DNA is useful not only for figuring out which diseases you might develop in the future, but which illnesses are affecting you right now. Enter the idea of the handheld DNA analyzer, which has the potential to improve treatments in the developing world and identify epidemics early. QuantuMDx‘s handheld DNA analyzer can provide an accurate molecular diagnosis in just 10 to 15 minutes. To use the device, called the Q-POC handheld laboratory, you simply insert a blood sample into a disease-specific cartridge, insert the cartridge into the reader, and then get the results. The device can even identify drug-resistant strains of a disease. Each test costs between $5 and $20, and the system is designed for use in remote and resource-scarce settings.
As Re/Code reported when QuantuMDx unveiled a prototype of the device, the Q-POC is perfect for diagnosing diseases like Ebola, gonorrhea, HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis so that doctors can get the treatment right from the beginning. Additionally, the information gathered by health workers can be anonymized, geo-stamped, and uploaded to the cloud, where researchers could pull data from various clinics, villages, and countries to identify the distribution of diseases and the mutation patterns of pathogens in real-time. Providing that data to major public health organizations could help prevent outbreaks from becoming epidemics or pandemics.
6. A real-life medical tricorder
If you’ve ever hoped that the medical tricorder from Star Trek would become a reality, you’re in luck. Scanadu Vitals is a small device that measures your blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and pulse oximetry wirelessly and within seconds. To use the device, you simply press it against your forehead for a few seconds, and the readings are sent to an app on your smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. An earlier version of the device, called the Scanadu Scout, ran a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign, demonstrating that thousands of backers were interested in technology that would enable them to analyze and track their vitals over time.
Scanadu chief executive Walter De Brouwer, who is seeking FDA approval for Vitals, tells the Financial Times that while getting FDA approval takes time, he thinks that setting a high regulatory bar is essential. “We believe that consumers have the right to their own data, but they also have the right to accurate data,” he told the publication. “Just suppose they change their behaviour based on something that is not true.”
7. A pathogen detector that pinpoints the cause of sepsis in hours
Some of the most exciting applications of new medical technology are those that make diagnosing dangerous conditions and illnesses a lot faster than it has been traditionally. Consider the T2MR pathogen detector from T2 Biosystems. MIT Technology Review reports that the technology can diagnose sepsis, a devastating condition that kills more than 25% of its victims and costs hospitals billions of dollars each year. Sepsis is a destructive reaction to an infection and causes an inflammatory response throughout the body. Untreated, it can cause organ malfunction and death.
The problem is that treating a septic patient requires finding the bacterial or fungal organism to blame. That’s a process that requires a blood culture and takes between one and five days. In the meantime, doctors give a septic patient a dose of a broad-spectrum antibiotic, which often doesn’t work and is useless against fungal sepsis. The T2MR can identify the cause of sepsis within five hours. Clinical data indicates that if septic patients can get the right drug within 12 hours of first displaying symptoms, the chance of death is cut in half. Conversely, each hour of delayed therapy increases mortality by 7 to 8%. The T2MR measures changes in the magnetic properties of the water molecules in the sample to determine whether or not a specific bug is present.
8. A big data platform that uses genomics to manage fertility
The Polaris platform from Celmatix isn’t a kit you can buy or a piece of equipment that you’ll see in a hospital, but it is a technology that will change the way women (and couples) manage their fertility. As Wired reports, Polaris enables fertility specialists to compare a patient’s personal fertility metrics to hundreds of thousands of other patients’ data. Then, the platform uses predictive analytics to calculate the patient’s most likely outcomes, which helps them make more informed decisions about their fertility and fertility treatments.
Wired explains that the idea is to take the guesswork out of getting pregnant. Polaris can predict a woman’s likelihood of getting pregnant, determine how that likelihood will change over time, estimate the risk of multiple births, and predict the likelihood of other outcomes. Polaris aims to solve patients’ lack of access to data and predictive models. With Polaris, women and couples will be able to compare the differences between IVF and hormone injections and learn how each treatment increases the risk of multiple births. Celmatix is also working on integrating other types of data, like genetic testing, which, for instance, could help women considering IVF discover whether they have a genetic mutation that would prevent them from getting pregnant with their own eggs.
9. A patch that measures glucose and delivers a drug when needed
Seoul National University assistant professor Dae-Hyeong Kim and researchers at MC10 are developing a flexible patch that senses excess glucose in people with diabetes, and automatically administers drugs by heating up micro needles that penetrate the skin, according to MIT Technology Review. While past efforts to develop minimally invasive glucose monitoring have used ultrasounds and optical measurements, a variety of skin patches have been developed to deliver insulin or metformin, a popular drug used to treat type 2 diabetes. The new prototype incorporates both detection and drug delivery in a single device.
The patch is made of graphene with gold particles and sensors that detect humidity, glucose, pH, and temperature. An enzyme-based glucose sensor accounts for pH and temperature to accurately measure the glucose in the wearer’s sweat. If the patch senses high glucose levels, heaters trigger microneedles to dissolve a coating and release metformin just below the surface of the skin. The MC10 will also be able to store data on drug delivery and activity, and transmit that information to a wearable device that would then transmit it to your smartphone.