The Future of Health: Gizmos and Gadgets Edition

Columnist
Graduate Division

Wearable technology, implantable nano-devices, 3D-printed organs and drones are all slowly but surely bringing us to the fabulous science fiction of Star Trek – in which most medical procedures, including brain surgery, could be done via noninvasive external devices. The future is coming, and it’s bringing us some fabulous gizmos and gadgets.

Consumer electronics takes big step toward digital health

At its “Spring Forward” event on March 9, Apple Inc. announced the Research Kit: a major new feature of their mobile operating system that will allow iPhone users to participate anonymously in clinical research. “You’re already carrying a powerful medical research tool,” Apple’s website proclaims. Electronics already on board the iPhone such as its microphone, camera, gyroscopes, and accelerometers have the capability to measure and record a person’s voice, heart rate, hand tremors, and walking balance. Variations in these simple tests could help detect and monitor disease from the comfort of one’s home, and be compiled into valuable large data sets for doctors and scientists to analyze.

Research Kit is an open source platform: all the apps in it will be developed by third-party software developers whose health tests can take advantage of built-in as well as plug-in sensors. The first few apps have already been developed by biomedical research institutions including Stanford, Mt. Sinai, Dana-Farber, UPenn, Oxford, and others. They aim to collect data for a variety of diseases, including asthma, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

As Apple enters this new medical arena, it will soon have to face FDA regulation, but so far has avoided direct contact: for example, by not placing specifically health-dedicated biosensors onto the new Apple Watch. However, as wearable technology holds great promise in improving quality of life in both health and disease, Apple is not likely to fall behind on this path toward this inevitable future of digital health.

A big hope for this platform is to collect not only big but also diverse health data sets. While very large clinical studies can afford to include diverse populations, smaller ones are often skewed toward white populations. The only real bias of the Research Kit is that participants must own an iPhone, which, to be fair, could skew data. But with 191.4 million devices sold in 2014 alone, and taking the lead in the smartphone market share in the fourth quarter, Apple is in a position to collect a vast and unprecedented body of data worldwide. This would certainly improve studies that depend on participants coming into a medical center personally, which limits diversity and scope in far more numerous ways.

Despite the promise of innovation, a partially divided public observes these developments. Some fear losses of privacy, while others worry about dealing with the sheer amount of data this platform would produce. Security has been one of Apple’s strong suits; so far the company has always come up with robust solutions, as in the airtight Apple Pay platform introduced on the iPhone 6. Worries aside, this move is a major step for the future of consumer electronics and digital health. I join those who look on with excitement to see where these new technologies will lead. The future is coming.

Sources: TechCrunch, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Apple.com

Injectable micro-motors for drug delivery

Could you use a tiny robot to deliver drug to an organ or tumor? This was a thought that crossed my mind in a high school biology class. Now, researchers in the UC San Diego Department of Nanoengineering have taken the first step in that direction: they’ve designed tiny gastric acid-powered micro-motors that deliver drug to mouse stomach lining.

Published in ACS Nano in January, these tiny tube-shaped motors were coated in zinc, whose reaction with stomach acids created a stream of bubbles that boosted the motors forward at speeds of 60 micrometers per second. They then attached themselves to the stomach lining, where they could remain attached for 12 hours before dissolving and releasing their cargo – gold nanoparticles – directly into the tissue. Significantly fewer nanoparticles were absorbed when administered orally, and no toxic side effects were observed.

Sources: ACS Nano, UCSD, Gizmag