Artificial intelligence has a big future in healthcare, but it's not the only piece of technology transforming the world of medicine.
A health check of the world today may seem gloomy – antibiotics are failing, people are dying of easily treatable diseases because they’re poor, and conditions such as dementia are on the rise. The scientists, researchers, investors and startups at the Francis Crick Institute in London were only too aware of the challenges – here’s what we learned.
Femtech needs to get more intelligent
Women account for almost 50 per cent of the world’s population, but women’s health technology hasn’t updated for years – however, Tania Boler, CEO of London- and Berlin-based start-up Elvie, argued that’s about to change. “We are witnessing three big trends,” she told the room. “The big feminist surge, the tech revolution in connected devices and the paradigm shift towards individuals taking charge of their own health.”
Two years ago Boler launched a discrete, mobile-connected, medical-grade silicone pod that helps new mothers – half of whom suffer post-natal pelvic prolapses – strengthen their pelvic floor muscles. Boler has just signed an agreement to supply the devices to the NHS – “Investors finally realise femtech is a huge opportunity,” she said.
Governments must see healthcare as an investment
Governments need to look at healthcare spending in economic not just social terms, Botswana’s minister for health and wellness Dorcas Makgato told the room. The huge African country with a tiny population (2.3m) provided free treatment for every citizen with HIV/AIDS. As a result, Botswana is on course to be free of HIV/AIDS deaths by 2030. “Twenty five per cent of our people had the virus,” she explained. “We had to divert most of our resources to HIV – it was the best investment we ever made.”
We need to use nature's defences to fight disease
Medicines are of limited use and have too many side effects, Bruce Levine from the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies argued – so it’s time to use nature to treat disease. Levine uses chimeric antigen receptor-modified T cells – a patient’s own white blood cells modified by a disabled form of the HIV virus – to identify and attack cancer cells. “Three patients we treated in 2010 had between 1.3 and 3.5 kg of leukaemia killed by their own T cells,” he told delegates. “We’re seeing patients given three to nine months to live being free of cancer six years later.” With FDA approval for his “bag of cells” granted last August, the next step is tackling solid cancers – a much harder target.
Simba Gill, CEO of Evelo Biosciences, is using gut microbes instead of T cells. “We’ve spent hundreds of years trying to destroy microbes and only now realised they are part of us,” he explained. Gill converts microbes into a white powder that’s taken orally – where they interact with the immune system through the gut-body network, shutting down inflammation. He has isolated different microbes to treat different diseases and is running ten trials on diseases such as melanoma, colorectal and renal cancer, arthritis and inflamed bowel disease. He expects clinical results in the next 12-18 months.
Both have work ahead but, Levine pointed out, “There are three stages to a scientific revolution: 1) You’re crazy; 2) It’s possible but not worth it; 3) I knew it was a good idea all along.”
Diagnosing blindness needs to get easier
Curing blindness is easy and cheap, according to Andrew Bastawrous, co-founder and CEO of Peek Vision, a social enterprise owned by registered charity The Peek Vision Foundation. “It’s diagnosing that’s hard and expensive,” he says. Smartphones may have the answer.
“In schools in the developing world, three children in every 40 are dealing with poor vision and blindness,” he told the crowd of investors, scientists and CEOs. “But no one knows which kids suffer from it, and it’s costly to test everyone in distant rural schools.”
Peek’s smartphone app aims to overcome that problem – offering an optician-style eye test and back-of-the-eye scan that’s so simple that teachers can use it. He’s working on
a hearing test – but, he warned, governments need to step up and
join in to keep this sustainable.
Doctors will be helped by AI
The world needs high-quality healthcare just as it’s running out of doctors, warned Ada Health co-founder Claire Novorol – but AI can help. “In India and China, doctors have two minutes per patient,” she told delegates. “In Bangladesh it’s 43 seconds.” Her solution is Ada – a diagnostic AI built with GPs. It’s human plus machine, she explained. “Doctors are better at patient relationships, but AI has less bias and a better memory.”
Francis Crick Institute researcher Andrew Steele argued that AI’s lack of bias means it’s ideal to answer the dreaded question – how long have I got, doctor? Steele analysed the electronic health records of more than 100,000 patients, checking for diagnosis, prescription and results to arrive at strong prediction models. “Doctors can just press a button, the AI looks at the patient’s health record then spits out immediately – a ten per cent chance of dying in next five years, for instance,” he explained. The next step? Letting AI help prescribe treatment.
3D X-rays will transform surgery
Vascular surgery is so primitive it’s like a mechanic merely guessing which brake pads are worn out on a car, Oxford Heartbeat founder Katerina Spranger told the room. The most common cardiovascular treatment is a stent. While researching her PhD, Spranger watched a surgeon trying to work out which device to use from a 2D X-ray. “It was like they were watching a silent black and white movie,” she explained. Her solution? An image processing 3D visualisation of a patient’s arteries to help choose and deploy the best stent.
Gaming will shake up mental health
Virtual reality is moving into healthcare – and gaming with it can diagnose dementia and help stroke patients recover, said Tej Tadi, founder of Switzerland’s first unicorn, MindMaze. For stroke patients, playing VR games makes physical therapy fun and something they do for them- selves, he explained.
Michael Hornberger, co-creator of the Sea Hero Quest game, showed how players’ spatial perception was measured while playing – with poor spatial perception an early indicator for dementia, it allows diagnosis long before memory loss.
Tadi foresees simple electrodes to decode face movements under headset cameras treating autism, Parkinson’s and cerebral palsy. “It’s time for braintech to take centre stage,” he told the room.
Psychedelics will be taken seriously
Mental illness affects one in four people in the UK, yet mental health makes up just five per cent of research spending, according to Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research, Imperial College London. He researches psychedelics as a possible alternative to antidepressants and the results are promising – after a single dose, patients who experienced an emotional breakthrough report benefits for days, weeks and even years. This autumn, Carhart-Harris is crowdfunding a new charity – Global Psychedelic Research – to tackle science elites and fund new studies.
Existing drugs can cure ageing
We could all live until we’re 115 if we start treating the symptoms of ageing, according to Nir Barzilai, director, Institute for Aging Research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine.“Ageing is the strongest risk factor in heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes,” he explained. Barzilai has identified genes that help cardiovascular health and proteins that may protect against ageing. He’s testing 30 drugs – including rapamycin, which increased mice lifespan by 24 per cent in trials. Increasing life expectancy by 2.2 years could save $7.1 trillion (£5.1 billion) in healthcare costs, he argued.