The future of healthcare technology – today

The convergence of health and technology is a fast-developing area with increasing relevance to the pharmaceutical industry. The application of technology to personalised medicine, the role of mobile and biomedical printing is an exciting area that will shape and change our future. Mike Kan discusses in our health technology themed month.

As the new year begins the future begins to feel a little bit closer. Huge steps are being made in health technology and it will impact our lives sooner than we think.

The advent of cheap, personalised gene sequencing is one prime example. The idea is that self-testing kits will allow consumers to anticipate genetically based health conditions and stop them developing, with lifestyle or preventive medical therapy. The speed at which personalised testing has become available is breath-taking. The technology temporarily outpaced the regulators in the recent case of 23&me. The Google-backed genetics testing company received a warning letter from the FDA asking them to stop selling their product directly to consumers in the face of concerns about the accuracy and validity of its kits. While this may be a temporary set-back, it shows that these new companies must consider the implications of their technology in relation to healthcare regulation.

“…these new companies must consider the implications of their technology in relation to healthcare regulation.”

Soon, we might even be able to replace our own organs with new ones through techniques such as ’tissue engineering’, stem cells and cloning. Currently we can grow simple structures like heart valves or skin but tomorrow we will be able to grow whole hearts and livers, perhaps any organ or body part from our own cells.

Advances in health technology may enable us to live much longer by slowing or reversing the ageing process. Genetics once again play a vital role. Our DNA varies from a chimpanzee by only 1.5% but we live 50% longer. We can already breed generations of animals that live longer and recent research has extended the life of fruit flies by 70% through selective breeding. We have already identified around 60 genes where ageing seems to be concentrated in humans. While scientists believe that our life expectancy is only 35% determined by our genes, a combination of stem cells and gene therapy may allow us to slow down the ageing process and live a lot longer. Companies are beginning to research the molecules that control the process that slows ageing. One such company was Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, now absorbed into GSK and whose molecules are being explored within GSK’s R&D function.

While genetics and personalised medicine is one fascinating area of rapid health technology development, advances in the world of health technology are taking place closer to home in the world of mobile. Mobile offers some really exciting possibilities for healthcare in the developed and developing worlds. Mobile facilitates the swift creation of ‘temporary communities’ so people can assemble quickly around one or more shared connections, e.g. location, interest or affiliation. Gatherings can occur anywhere and in the health world, most often around a common goal such as a disease outbreak. Some interesting work has been done by InSTEDD, Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters through its GeoChat platform – a service for coordinating the efforts of different relief organisations to ensure an organised, rapid response following, for example, a health crisis.

The combination of mobile technology with the development of low cost sensors allows for virtually anything, from people to medicines, to be tracked and monitored. This can include tracking the delivery of medical supplies in real time, the progress of patients and their records through hospital systems, using smell sensors to detect spoilage and manage perishable stock and early warning for disease development and chronic disease management. One day, smell sensors could be fitted into your bathroom mirror. As you breathe onto it while cleaning your teeth, applying your beauty products or shaving, a whole range of diagnostic tests could be taking quietly taking place to ensure you aren’t in the early stages of certain diseases, such as cancer.

“…a combination of stem cells and gene therapy may allow us to slow down the ageing process and live a lot longer.”

Remote Diagnostics & Wellness tracking is also a key health technology trend. Web connected devices can now capture important patient health data and transmit it to their doctor, wherever they may be. This allows for remote diagnosis, treatment adjustment and appropriate intervention in the event of potential acute health episode. This includes devices to monitor exercise and sleep patterns, smart pills that signal the doctor when they are swallowed, and devices that monitor the heart’s vital signs and can alert emergency services when a patient is about to have an acute heart-related event. In November, a new Android App was launched that would upload a patient’s ECG to Instagram.

Biomedical printing is an exciting area of health technology. With advances in 3D and printing technology, the artificial constructions of biomedical materials are becoming a reality. Applications include the printing of active ingredients onto the surface of pills, the printing of tailored artificial prosthetics such as hip and jaw implants and the printing of human tissue such as veins and skin. Companies like Organovo are at the forefront of bioprinting research and development. They take primary or other human cells and shape them into 3D tissue, with tremendous cellular viability and biology that appears to be superior to even an animal model. One day, we may be able to print whole new hearts and major organs.

A key question is who will pay for all these advances? The combination of demographics and improved illness management is increasingly expensive as it extends life and increases health and social care system costs. While the majority of these developments will be paid for privately, it will be fascinating to see which ones, if any, are prioritised for reimbursement by cash-strapped public health care systems.

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About the author:

Mike Kan is global head of healthcare at Cohn & Wolfe, a global communications agency that delivers integrated marketing campaigns that build and protect brand value. At Cohn & Wolfe, Mike is responsible for the strategic direction and growth of the health practice globally.

He has worked with health companies to build their brands, market access, and license to operate with key stakeholders across pharmaceuticals, consumer health, pharmacy, healthcare devices and health advocacy. Mike’s objective is to help clients successfully negotiate the increasingly complex world of trust and reputation in an age of increasing accountability to regulators, payers and the digital community.

In 2013, Mike acted as an external advisor to the UK Cabinet Office (the government department that supports the Prime Minister to ensure the effective running of government) on a review of the communications effectiveness of the UK Department of Health.

Closing thought: Who will pay for advances in health technology?