Disruptive Technology in the health industry

DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY: HEALTH

Welcome to the fourth instalment of our Disruptive Technology series, where we showcase technical innovations that are revolutionising the world!

There have been so many conversations around health at the moment; a global pandemic, like the one we’re currently experiencing, is certain to get us all talking about it. But I’ve been thinking about the topic of health for quite a while — especially as it relates to technology.

This article is about health and the incredibly interesting tech and ideas that are disrupting the sector. And I promise, there will be no further mention of COVID-19!

A cure for aging?

A few years back I watched Aubrey De Grey’s TED talk, and it completely changed my perspective on aging — namely from an inevitable part of life, to a ‘disease’ that can be, with extensive research, cured.

An author and biomedical gerontologist, De Grey defines aging as the “lifelong accumulation of damage to the body that occurs as intrinsic side-effects of the body’s normal operation”. He argues, in simple terms, that if we think of aging as cumulative damage that never gets fixed (as opposed to a ‘natural’ process) then surely if we can fix the damage the body won’t age. Thinking of aging as a disease that can be cured has the potential to change our approach to ‘curing it’. Of course, De Grey acknowledges that ‘curing’ aging is no easy task. But some of the ways that De Grey sees age being ‘cured’ are already being put into practice — and are great examples of disruptive tech.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Chambers

I’ve become particularly interested in Hyperbaric Oxygen Chambers (HBOT). These ‘breathing chambers’ were invented in 1662 and deliver pure oxygen to patients. While historically used to treat divers who suffer from decompression illness from surfacing too quickly, it’s become a treatment for a range of conditions including non healing wounds, radiation injury, brain abscess, skin grafts and more.

By increasing the amount of oxygen your blood can carry, it helps fight bacteria and stimulates the release of growth factors and stem cells (more on these later!), promoting healing. Whether age is actually ‘curable’ or not is still up for debate — but it’ll be interesting to see what innovations will be created around this theory over the next few years.

Hospitals

Like schools, hospitals are an institution that haven’t really changed much — fundamentally, that is — in a very long time. But there are some new technological approaches that are transforming the way we think about hospitals and utilise their services.

The Longnan Hospital of Heilongjiang — a 1,200 hospital in China — has been integrating Lenovo’s smart medical tech since 2019. The service uses an intelligent information system to solve operating and service issues including the time of waiting, registration, checking out and medical treatment. The “smart medical” field is one that’s growing exponentially in China, with an IDC report from 2018 predicting the medical IT industry will reach 43 billion yuan by 2020.

Of course, smart medical practices using data have begun to become more integrated around the world. Remote appointments over telephone or using video are becoming more common — and online portals for booking systems, tracking prescription and health information are being used by more and more people. I look forward to seeing what the hospitals and doctor’s surgeries of the future will look like — and the potential for more efficiency and better service.

3D Bioprinting

3D printing is something we’ve discussed in other articles in this series. But its applications for health are truly life changing — and unbelievably fascinating.

Scientists growing human organs in labs for transplantation, for example. Sounds like something from a science fiction novel, but it’s true! In 2009, a group of researchers in the US discovered how to turn stem cells, which grow as simple flat structures, into 3D organ-like structures using 3D bioprinting, called organoids. These organoids are small compared to real organs — about the size of a pea. These allow doctors to test treatments on mini versions of patients to see if it will be effective, before trying it on the patients themselves. This has huge implications on harm reduction as well as efficacy. They’re also being used to diagnose patients with really complex diseases while avoiding incredibly invasive testing and can help them come up with treatment strategies specifically designed for the individual.

And while scientists can’t yet make full organs from 3D printing, there’s potential for it in the future. In 2011, the first 3D printed kidney was created, and while it didn’t survive for long it showed a promising start. A few years later, in 2018, a team of scientists successfully 3D printed human corneas. And in 2019 researchers in Tel-Aviv bioprinted a human heart! While it was the size of a cherry, the potential for the future is pretty astonishing to think about.

Target drug tech

It’s pretty astonishing to think about some of the advancements scientists and doctors have made when its come to treating diseases. The Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) from TAE Life Sciences is one I’ve come across as of late. Developed as a non-invasive radiation treatment for some of the most challenging of cancers to treat, BNCT begins by infusing a patient with a non-toxic boron-10 compound that accumulates in the tumour tissue.

The tumour is then irradiated with low energy neutrons, which causes the cells to emit charged particles that destroy the cancer cell — while also limiting any damage to the surrounding tissue. It’s some mind-boggling stuff and has revolutionary potential for the future of cancer treatment.

Robotics

The last thing I want to talk about in this topic is robotics and some of its applications within the health sector.

One of the first that came to mind was to do with surgeries. The idea that robots might be conducting our surgeries in the future may seem a little alarming. But they’re already being used as tools by doctors to help be more precise and cause eliminate potential complications as a result of very human issues. The PRECEYES surgical system, for example, is a supplementary surgical tool that helps surgeons perform very complex eye surgeries. The surgeon actually operates the system with their hands, but it helps downscale movements and filtering out any natural hand tremors — which, when it comes to such a fragile organ like an eye, can make an impressive difference in terms of results. The overall improvement of precision of movement by using a PRECEYES surgical system is a factor of 10-20. Which are the kind of numbers you want on board if you’re going under the knife.

Another cool thing I came across was the CyberKnife System, which uses robotics to perform non-invasive radiation therapy on both cancerous and non-cancerous tumours. Using real-time imagery and a robot, the system can move and bend around the patient and perform extremely precise radiation therapy while minimising potential damage to the surrounding tissue. It’s a truly incredible innovation and again, can actually save lives.

Conclusion

This is a unparalleled time for conversations — from the media, governments, scientists and between our families and friends — around health. But it’s a fascinating one, too. And with so much incredible innovation, and technological interventions, when it comes to health, it’s exciting to think of what the future might hold for this space. And the potential for it to change our lives, for the better.

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