While working on developing sensors to measure stress, Rosalind Picard and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made a startling discovery. They found that when monitoring skin for electrical changes activated deep in the brain, the signals proved effective at detecting potentially fatal seizures.
The findings open the door to wearable monitoring devices that, among other things, could reduce deaths among people with epilepsy. “Wearables are going to be much bigger than anyone imagined,” says Prof Picard, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab.
From implantable devices that monitor medical conditions to the progress being made towards the 3D printing of organs, the rate at which new technologies are emerging in healthcare seems to be growing rapidly.
This does not come out of nowhere, notes Caroline Corner, managing director of the healthcare equity research team at financial services company Cantor Fitzgerald. “A lot of rapid advances right now are built on the shoulders of other advances,” she says.
She cites the example of 3D printing of human cells, pointing to the possibility of creating human organs. While this remains some way off, groups of cells can be printed for use, for example, in toxicology studies.
“There’s a lot of attention on 3D printing of cellular matrices now but that’s built on years and years of cell research,” says Ms Corner. “We’re starting to get positive steps in the right direction.”
The ability to “grow” living cells and tissues in a laboratory has existed for some time, says Nizar Zein, chief of hepatology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “However, 3D printing potentially allows for these cells to be organised geographically in a 3D space simulating human organs,” he adds.
As biotechnology and digital technology come together in healthcare, another factor is playing a role in the advance of medical technologies — miniaturisation and Moore’s Law, namely the observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors that fit on a chip has approximately doubled every two years.
“You have a massive increase in the capacity to communicate, to analyse data and to provide individuals with supercomputers right in their pockets,” says Olivier Leclerc, digital head of the global pharmaceutical and medical products practice at consultants McKinsey. “Miniaturisation has been playing out for a while but it’s now starting to make an impact.”
Miniaturisation will enable the development of wearable and implantable biological devices that, equipped with sensors, can wirelessly transmit a constant stream of data about medical conditions.
Analysts say this will lead to a rapid increase in the development of technically advanced wearable devices. Transparency Market Research predicts that the global wearable sensor market could expand at a compound annual growth rate of more than 45 per cent between 2014 and 2020.
Prof Picard believes that the advances these technologies facilitate in healthcare will — over a far shorter space of time — be similar to those seen in weather forecasting in the past 150 years, with meteorologists now able to predict events such as tsunamis and hurricanes.
“That happened by having lots of sensors in lots of places and people sharing information, getting a lot of data over time and figuring out which patterns predicted which outcomes,” she says.
Similarly, the combination of wearable sensors, that provide a continuous flow of data, with the analysis made possible by machine learning and pattern recognition, will help foresee the pattern of medical conditions. Physicians will be able not only to make better decisions about what interventions are needed, but also create treatments tailored to individual patients.
This is very different from the traditional mode of care, in which information about a patient’s condition exists on paper or digital medical records that are essentially a series of snapshots taken during periodic visits to the doctor.
Mr Leclerc cites the example of progressive neurological diseases. “Seeing a physician a few times a year is not enough because you may have declined so fast that they can’t do much for you,” he says. More consistent monitoring, on the other hand, “can allow you to modify your treatment over time and intervene at critical moments, and hopefully slow down the decline”.
Prof Picard believes that what she calls “affective wearables” — which would generate social and emotional data as well as data on sleep patterns and physical activity — could potentially prevent the onset of conditions such as depression.
“People don’t just wake up depressed. In most cases, it’s a gradual change in the things we’re doing to ourselves.” she says.
“If we can learn those patterns, then just as we can forecast a big storm coming, we can put you on a path towards a likely diagnosis.”