Virtual Reality And The Connected Brain In Medtech

Virtual Reality And The Connected Brain In Medtech
July 4, 2017

The future of medical technology could involve artificial intelligence, virtual reality and even direct connections to the human brain. A panel at DeviceTalks, lead by Worrell Design’s director of advanced development, Derek Mathers, discussed how technological developments like Amazon’s Alexa and the accumulation of big data could shape future trends in medtech. 


Wielding big data for innovation


Big data – the latest buzzword in health IT – could help usher in a new era of precision medicine and disease management, according to a panel of pharma and medtech experts at this year’s DeviceTalks in Minnesota.


Lisa Shafer, senior director of new devices and bioelectronics at Teva Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:TEVA), said that the generic drugmaker uses big data to identify new ways of repurposing its stockpile of medicine and better manage disease.


Other companies, like Smiths Medical, are incorporating big data with their drug pumps to monitor patients and make sure they’re not double-dosing. Rob Rajalingam, the VP and GM of the company’s vascular access division, added that the healthcare group is leveraging data analytics to identify the cause of hospital-acquired infections.


“It’s so multi-variable, it’s really well-suited to big data,” Rajalingam said.


Companies don’t need to have the technological capabilities internally to benefit from big data, according to Boston Scientific’s Bryan Clark.


“Analyzing big data through partnerships really offers us a great opportunity to identify where there may be gaps to better care, and let those gaps be opportunities for us to go again and to uncover new solutions,” he said.


Stephanie Board, VP of R&D delivery system engineering at Abbott (NYSE:ABT), explained that data analytics can be useful for more than just product development – big data could help companies optimize their chosen patient populations for clinical trials.


Google, Apple and Amazon – Silicon Valley enters medtech


It’s no secret that Google and Apple are interested in becoming major players within medtech. Between Google’s Project Baseline and Apple‘s (NSDQ:AAPL) rumored attempts to turn the iPhone into a centralized databank for healthcare, Silicon Valley could either deal a competitive blow to healthcare companies or offer major partnership opportunities.


“We hear enough about Google and Apple, and what they could do in healthcare, but a lot of it sometimes seems like smoke and mirrors because we haven’t seen a lot of traction in it yet,” Mathers said. “But one company that’s coming even closer than either of those in terms of logistical capabilities is Amazon.”


Mathers pointed out that Amazon (NSDQ:AMZN) has already begun working with medtech – in May,Merck (NYSE:MRK) announced that it partnered with Amazon to use the same deep learning technologies that power Amazon Alexa to develop solutions for patients with diabetes.


Clark added that in the same ways that Amazon has revolutionized how people shop for clothes and household items, it could one day do the same for pharmaceuticals.


Other unconventional companies might join the healthcare effort, too, according to the panel.


“Uber has got everybody’s attention,” Clark said.


How gene editing could change disease treatment


Editing genes using technology like CRISPR-Cas 9 could fundamentally alter the way we treat disease, the panel said. Mathers pointed out that researchers in China have already brought CRISPR-Cas9 into human trials and that cancer-related trials are on schedule for the US and China through 2018.


Shafer added that gene editing can help create relevant models of disease for researchers. But there is a lot of work to be done in order for medtech to embrace the technology.


“Not only does it have to get to the cell, it has to get to the right region of the body because it needs to be more targeted, otherwise it can bring about significant side effects thanks to a lack of specificity,” Shafer said. “So we need collaboration between pharma and tech and device companies to actually sell this and make it useful for therapy.”


Mathers described a mouse study that used CRISPR-Cas9 as a therapy to correct blindness. It was successful, but it came with serious problems – it caused a number of nucleotide malfunctions and resulted in over 100 unintended deletions and insertions, Mathers said. All 3 of the mice involved in the study died of different types of cancer in the weeks following the study.


“I think if we don’t understand what the mutations are and how to counteract those mutations, then we’re not ready to go into any humans,” Board said. “Now, on the flip-side of that, if somebody already has cancer and they’re going to die anyway, maybe that is where we need to take it and give them some other options for treatment.”


“But what we need to remember is that anything like this, anything major, as innovative as this is in terms of healthcare, it takes a long, long time to bring it to market, and it takes a lot of research,” Rajalingam added.


Why hospitals are adopting virtual reality 


Some healthcare groups are beginning to use seemingly futuristic technology like virtual reality to evaluate a device’s usability or calm young patients during procedures.


“What we’re seeing is a lot of our hospital partners are using it. So, if you visit a pediatric oncology ward, you need to draw blood from kids multiple times a day, sometimes multiple times in one setting, given the failing rates of some of the technology,” Rajalingam said. “It sounds simple but it has profound impact on the ease of administering that treatment.”


Adoption of high-tech solutions like virtual reality is largely driven by patient outcomes, Rajalingam explained, but Medicare is also influencing the decision to incorporate VR since it is adjusting reimbursement rates based on patient satisfaction scores.


Shafer added that she sees potential in using VR to stimulate a patient’s visual senses and distract them from pain, potentially reducing the need for painkillers that come with scary side effects.


“That sounds like a really inexpensive therapy that isn’t so addictive,” she said.


Patients aren’t the only people that could benefit from VR in healthcare – surgeons could practice complicated procedures in an atmosphere that mimics the operating table.


“We train pilots with the most crazy possible failure modes in VR, and yet our own surgeons have to use data that is nonresponsive or a surgical simulator that costs six figures,” Mathers said.


As companies begin incorporating high-tech solutions into their devices or medical practices, they need to keep patient preference in mind, Rajalingam added.


“One of the things we need to keep in mind is when we’re building technology we’re not building it for the use, we should be building it with the user, with their input on it,” he said. “There’s a lot of hype around AR, VR, all this technology, and we see people try to push it everywhere they can, but we need to make sure we keep in mind who it’s for and really engage those people in the process.”


Integrating technology with patient care


“Unlocking the human brain and learning how to read and write our neural code is the single most consequential and exciting adventure in the history of the human race,” Mathers said. “Ever since the 1st computer came out in 1946 and started flashing, humans have gotten closer and closer to their technology. It went from computers in the home in the 80s, to in your lap, to in your pocket, to on your wrist, and now in labs in contact lenses and in your ear.”


Neuromodulation, directly targeting the human brain as a form of treatment, could represent a new way of providing therapy – one that is more than symptom management, according to the panel.


“This is probably the largest area for growth for us as a medical field right now,” Board said.


Between tools that give us access to the inner workings of the brain and devices that augment our reality, healthcare companies are moving towards a future of highly connected technologies. But in order for these solutions to be effective in serving patients, healthcare groups and technology companies need to work together, Shafer said.


“We’re working to solve healthcare solutions that impact both med-tech and bio-pharma, and yet we do not speak well together because we have fundamentally different languages,” she said. “A fundamental barrier, an obstacle in using these technologies for healthcare, is converging our language and being in the room together.”


When companies work together to create smarter solutions, both patients and doctors reap the benefits, according to Rajalingam.


“Physicians today see relatively small numbers of patients, it could be 20 a year for a given surgery. Now you take the data from hundreds of thousands of patients and you aggregate that, and you use machine learning to actually predict outcomes and provide that information back to that surgeon or physician real time, they’re going to be able to make better decisions,” he said. “That machine learning, AI, isn’t doing the job for them, necessarily, but it’s certainly informing them.”

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