Innovation trends for 2016
What medical technology innovations can we expect to see in 2016? We assessed where research trends might take us this year.
Digital technology is changing patients’ and medics’ experience of healthcare - we are increasingly able to share health information in an accessible ‘cloud’ rather than on paper and monitor everything from our own mental health to the number of steps we have walked. With new apps, people can increasingly contribute their health data to medical research. With more and more people using smart phones, smart watches and apps, the connected health market is set to grow exponentially globally by 2018. This year should see wearable devices like fitness watches, digital blood pressure monitors and glucose sensors becoming more mainstream, and more advanced ‘wearables’ are being unveiled by the week (an electro-conductive tattoo that could double as a health tracker is just one, while we recently reported on super-thin skin sensors). ‘The opportunity for wearables in 2016 is set to increase with the movement away from the standard wristband/watch design,’ says Collette Johnson, Medical Business Development Manager at Plextec Consulting. ‘Instead there will be more sophisticated sensor-based systems that will generate more niche measurements, such as looking at muscle behaviour in stroke rehab patients or intelligent systems for the indoor tracking of dementia patients.’
The impact of connected health in developing countries and remote communities without easy access to medical facilities is also predicted to grow. ‘This is now going to be the “Internet of Life”,’ says Professor Sanjeev Krishna, a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and Professor of Medicine at St George’s Hospital, London. ‘For example, epidemiological results can be populated from all across the world in real time so you can see hotspots of resistance to parasites, and this can be fed back to policy makers who can see where infections are and whether you’re using the right treatments.’
In 2016 we are likely to see increasing numbers of patients being implanted with ‘deep brain stimulation’ devices to control neurological and psychiatric conditions including Parkinson’s, OCD and severe depression. Researchers will learn more about the possible benefits of DBS for other conditions like Alzheimer’s, anorexia nervosa, chronic pain and epilepsy. Advanced implantable cardiac devices are also being developed. In a recent interview, Marie Thibault, associate editor at Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry, talked about how companies making Left Ventricular Assist Devices, which help heart failure patients, are currently working towards making such devices wire-free and battery-free. ‘Heart failure and Parkinson’s are becoming more common because old age is becoming more common so research into these areas will be very high impact,’ says Prof. Krishna. ‘Innovations in miniaturisation would be very helpful in assist devices, which are shrinking.’
‘WITH THE ADVANCES OF TECHNOLOGY TAKING PLACE, WE ARE ABOUT TO CAPTURE A NEW WAVE OF HOW TO DIAGNOSE DISEASES,’ SAYS PROF. KRISHNA.
This year, researchers will further their experiments with 3D printing for medical research (for example, an exact replica of a patient’s cancer tumour can be printed using cells and can, it is hoped, be used for trialling treatments). And prosthetics and hearing aids are increasingly being 3D printed. On the horizon, researchers are exploring how 3D printed soft living tissue or even organs could be implanted in patients’ bodies - and how 4D printing could make organs that develop and adapt over time (already in 2015, the successful use of 4D windpipes has been reported).
Strap-on exoskeletons - robotic prosthetics that give us greater power - fuse man with machine. October 2016 will see the world’s first Cybathlon in Zurich, an Olympics for people wearing robotic assistive devices, including a powered exoskeleton race, and the Wearable Robotics Association’s first ever conference in February in Phoenix, Arizona.
Brain Computer Interfaces
Brain Computer Interfacing (BCI) devices, which will see more tests this year, allow paralysed users to control objects (for example steer a wheelchair, move a cursor on a computer screen or direct a robotic arm) using their thoughts. One up-and-coming BCI, which is wireless and attached to the user’s skull, works by transmitting electrical spikes in the brain’s neurons via radio waves to a receiver, which interprets the signals as commands. Another BCI being trialled works with the user wearing an electroencephalogram cap, which decodes brain signals to control a robotic exoskeleton.
2016 could see drones being used to improve healthcare in remote, cut off, developing or war-torn areas of the world where people have scarce access to medical supplies. Drones could deliver vaccines and medicines, enable blood testing, and help in emergencies.
‘In 2016, advances in self-monitoring technology will encourage the transition of the traditional healthcare setting into the home, specifically with the use of portable devices,’ stresses Collette Johnson. ‘Such devices will help patients with conditions such as heart failure to monitor their own health using systems that can take an ECG in 30 seconds and cost just $5 for a clinical diagnosis.’ We are likely to start seeing more technology used to automate basic diagnostics in primary care, in patients’ homes and also in hospitals, where wireless and continuous vital sign monitoring is starting to take off. ‘With the advances of technology taking place, we are about to capture a new wave of how to diagnose diseases,’ says Prof. Krishna. He stresses that diagnosis is moving closer and closer to the point of care, with analysis of samples increasingly available within minutes using handheld devices.
The next step on from ‘wearables’, ‘ingestibles’ or ‘smart pills’ can report back on whether they have been taken and how well they have been absorbed by the body. They can even take snapshots from inside the body as they are digested, providing useful information to the doctor on the state of the intestinal tract. The smart pill market is predicted to reach $965 billion by 2017.
With increasing understanding of CRISPR, research is opening up the possibility of altering our genes. But in the near future, advances in technology mean it will become cheaper and easier for people to find out about their unique genetic information. In October 2015, a palm-sized DNA sequencer which allows an individual to gather and analyse DNA, and could help people track disease outbreaks and tailor treatment to a patient’s genetic make-up, was hailed as ‘revolutionary’ by scientists testing it. Prof. Krishna adds: ‘We’re at the stage now where we should be able not only to diagnose particular infections right next to the patient using handheld devices, but also to work out the best antibiotic for a particular infection by detecting resistance genes in the bug - that’s very exciting. This will allow us to get treatment right first time. Towards the middle of 2016 we will see the first such devices emerging.’ He believes: ‘the next advances are going to be computational. You’re still left with the question of what this information means, and that level of analysis requires a lot of clever work.’