New Technology – Medical Applications

Medical_Software_Logo,_by_Harry_GouvasThis month I look at some technology advances in medicine.

Robot Drug Researcher. A team at the University of Manchester has developed an AI system they call Eve which is designed to assist in drug research. Eve is a combination of a computer and a system of mechanical arms that lets Eve mix various chemicals to search for new compounds. The drug industry has already developed sophisticated software that helps to visualize chemical compounds, and Eve adds the ability to ‘learn’ on top of the existing software platforms.

During the original test of concept for Eve, the computer found a possible useful compound for fighting drug-resistant malaria. Eve found a chemical called TNP-470 that effectively targets an enzyme that is key to the growth of Plasmodium vivax, one of the parasites that causes malaria. Many drugs do their job by ‘fitting’ a chemical into a disease agent to block its function, in the way that a key fits into a lock. Drug chemists often search for cures by looking at classes of chemicals that might work in a given application based upon the shapes. But then they have to slog through hundreds of thousands of tests to find the perfect solution. Eve can automate and speed up that search process. The team was not really expecting this kind of immediate breakthrough, but it shows the potential for automating the searching process.

Microchips Deliver Drugs Precisely. Biomedical engineer Robert Langer has developed a system that will allow an implanted chip to release drugs in response to a WiFi signal. The chips have up to a thousand tiny wells and can hold many doses of the same drug or a number of different drugs. Each little well has a cover that can be opened in response to a wireless signal.

This technology could be useful in treating some forms of cancer as well as certain kinds of diabetes where small timed releases of drugs are the only effective treatment as compared to a large injection from a shot or a pill. With 1,000 possible doses the device could deliver drugs over a long period of time and might also be useful for such things as birth control.

Organs-on-a-Chip. Fraunhofer, a German research company, recently announced that it has developed what they are calling organ-on-a-chip. The company has developed chips where human cells from various organs are put into tiny wells and connected by tiny canals. The chips, when fully functioning, can then represent a functioning human for the purposes of testing the effects of various drugs.

The promise for the technology is that it will be able to greatly speed up the drug testing process, and can possibly replace having to test drugs on animals before a drug can be tested on humans. Normal drug testing can take years, and researchers have never been fully enamored with animal testing since they have always known that many drugs affect humans differently than animals; this testing method can give more precise feedback. The hope is that the organs-on-a-chip will knock years off of the testing process for promising drugs while also more quickly identifying drugs that have a detrimental effect on human tissues.

Robot Orderlies. The University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing is testing a robot orderly they have named Tug. The robots are being used to shuttle things around the hospital, and they deliver such things as clean linens, meals or drugs to rooms as needed. The hospital plans on having a fleet of 25 of the robots by this month. Already each of the robots at the hospital is logging 12 miles of hallway travel per day.

The robots navigate using built-in maps of the hospital. They are programmed to not be intrusive and, for example, will patiently wait to get past people who are blocking a hallway. The robots take the elevators which they call by wireless signal. There have been trials of robot orderlies before, but this is the largest trial to date and the robots are taking over a host of orderly services.

Smartphone as Medical Monitor. Apple has teamed up with a number of leading hospitals to conduct trials where they will use the iPhone 6 and smart watches to monitor patients. The idea is to monitor patients 24 hours per day after they have been released from the hospital for treatment of major health problems. The monitoring will give the doctors the ability to watch key metrics such as heart beat, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other important indicators, much as they would have done if the patient was still in the hospital.

Apple is calling the technology package HealthKit and it puts them far ahead of rivals such as Samsung and Google since over a dozen hospitals are now trialing the technology. The trials are to help doctors determine the degree to which tracking patients’ symptoms will help their treatment. For now the trials are working with critically ill patients, but the eventual plan is to develop routine tracking for the general population that will help to spot health issues before they become otherwise apparent. You can envision someday getting a call from your doctor asking you to come in since your blood pressure or blood sugar are outside normal bounds.

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