Digital Health Round-up: Microsoft to ‘solve’ cancer and more

Views & Analysis

A round-up of this week’s top digital healthcare news. Marco Ricci reports.

Microsoft joins the race to cure cancer

This week saw a re-affirmation of how 'Big Tech' is moving into healthcare, as Microsoft revealed its huge ambition to ‘solve the problem of cancer.’

In an interview with technology and business magazine Fast Company, researchers at Microsoft’s ‘biological computation’ labs in Cambridge, UK, revealed the company plans to take on cancer, using the philosophy of treating living cells as computers – with cancer being the result of a glitch in the system that can be reprogrammed.

The lab’s work has two current areas of focus: modelling the computational processes that happen within the cell, and developing a tool for researchers to create their own computer models of biological systems.

It has already created a platform to address its second objective. Dubbed the Bio Model Analyzer, the lab has created a tool that illustrates signalling pathways and determines cellular stabilisation. The tool is already being used by AstraZeneca to better understand drug interactions and resistance in chronic myeloid leukaemia patients.

"I’m hoping this is the beginning of changing the way we do drug discovery," Jonathan Dry, principal scientist for AstraZeneca, told Fast Company. "We could ... test all our ideas in a system like this, and determine the experiments that will have the best chance of success."

However some industry commentators have already scoffed at the boldness of the claims coming out of the lab, not least the speed with which they predict they can 'solve' cancer.

Dr Jasmin Fisher, senior researcher at Microsoft and an associate professor at Cambridge University, told The Telegraph: “If we are able to control and regulate cancer then it becomes like any chronic disease and then the problem is solved… I think for some of the cancers five years, but definitely within a decade. Then we will probably have a century free of cancer."

Microsoft’s biological computation labs’ approach is similar to IBM Watson’s efforts to tackle cancer, utilising machine learning artificial intelligence capabilities to analyse big data and formulate actionable insights into how the disease can be treated. Watson is now being deployed in Joe Biden’s Moonshot 2020 initiative, in China and in Norway as part of the Oslo Cancer Cluster to help address cancer.

Fisher’s estimation is a further testament to what many believe to be artificial intelligence’s potential in the healthcare space. However, Microsoft may well find the challenge of cracking cancer's code more difficult than they currently envisage.

TrialReach re-brands, teases EHR tech

As of this week, clinical trial matching company TrialReach is to be known as Antidote.

As well as a shiny new name, the company teased the upcoming release of a clinical trial matching tool that integrates electronic health records (EHRs).

Currently, the company’s portfolio consists of Antidote Match, a clinical trial matching tool that analyses user answers to a survey and matches them to available trials; Antidote Bridge, a tool that lets researchers provide details to patients when making clinical trial decisions; and Connect Network, an online network of patient organisations, health portals and advocacy groups.

By adding patient EHR data, clinical trial matching could be more reliable, personalised and faster

Virtually nothing about Antidote’s new platform has been revealed to date, although it’s fairly easy to imagine how the tool may work. The current Antidote Match system uses survey data to match patients to clinical trials. The survey data is likely instead to be replaced by EHR data with patient clinical trial matching based on their specific, personal characteristics.

The platform has been in development for some time too, going through various iterations at different pharmaceutical companies.

Speaking to FierceBiotechIT, vice president of engineering at Antidote, Dean Sellis, said “There's hundreds of millions of electronic health records now. We're building the other half of that around clinical trials.

"We're now working on the second phase of this where we take our structure eligibility and our matching platform, and we're going to build a set of APIs that allow healthcare providers … to integrate in various ways into our platform to automatically match patients to clinical trials."

Sellis had previously worked with Lilly to produce an API platform making it easier for patients to find and understand clinical trials. The API moved to TrialReach along with Sellis in February of last year.

For patients, an additional capability to be matched to clinical trials based on their specific EHRs would ensure they’re getting a truly personalised healthcare experience. For Antidote, the additional tech would put it at the forefront of the clinical trial matching market.

Digital augmentation

The creator of a gesture control armband that allows users to control digital devices completely hands-free has raised $120 million in a series B funding round.

The recipient of the funding is Thalmic Labs, the developer of a wireless armband that can read muscle signals to enable the control of technology with gestures and motion.

The company's Myo armband launched in 2013 and has since been used in multiple indications, ranging from DJing to drone operation. It could also have huge implications in the healthcare industry.

Thalmic is currently testing its armband in a study being carried out by Johns Hopkins University which is investigating its application in prosthetic limb control.

In that study, two Myo armbands are being used to help an amputee control a prosthetic arm. 

Two Myo armbands help Johnny Matheny control his modular prosthetic limb by relaying muscular signals to the limb via Bluetooth.

The company also lent its technology to Spanish medical imaging firm TedCas in 2014. The Myo armband was combined with cameras and voice recognition software to give surgeons control over information they needed during an operation. The armband allowed surgeons manipulate scans on a monitor whilst carrying out an operation.

The potential therefore for the Myo band to really influence the healthcare industry is coming closer to reality, with its new $120 million in funding going towards hiring more staff and expanding the company’s product line.

Also in the news:

profile mask

Marco Ricci