Beyond drugs: the importance of wearables in life sciences

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wearables devices

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Increasingly specialized, life science organizations have lost the compass. Digital can improve lives if they look at digital innovation in in its broadest sense

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”  — Aristotle

The Human Genome Project is among the most daring scientific endeavors ever undertaken.

The greatest hope in studying all of the DNA and developing the first sequence of the human genome was the construction of a human blueprint that could help detect disease propensity.

For years, we have fantasized about therapies that could manipulate genes to eliminate illness from our lives.

Life is complex and constantly adapts to change. No dashboard controls it yet. Despite the promise and hype, simple genetic treatments are unlikely to be effective against most common disabling diseases.

We regained our modesty and refocused on early screening to identify health issues. Prioritizing cancer and chronic illness therapies have paved the door for new techniques. However, the progress has too often consisted of prolonging patient’s lives (more time under treatment) rather than improving life expectancy (healthier and longer living).

The latest technological breakthroughs can change that and make early identification and monitoring so efficient that the therapy can be eliminated or made seamless. Machines complement humans in new ways: they can help solve screening challenges.

Why is early detection key?

Cancer and chronic diseases have several things in common, the most crucial being that early detection allows the problem to be eliminated or controlled with minimal impact on patients and frees up healthcare resources for other uses. However, their gradual impact without obvious symptoms makes early detection might difficult.

Vulnerable people need to monitor their levels with checkups, constantly.

Detection of cells or of specific changes in chemicals requires testing methods like blood tests, biopsies, and endoscopies. Because of their invasive nature, increasing their frequency may be difficult.

Last but not least, our understanding is still expanding, and tests can only pick up on what they were supposed to detect. The classical dilemma of routine vs. specialized examinations is frequently resolved only with suspicious patterns and symptoms, wasting valuable time.

The role of wearables in life science

Life science organizations aim to move to a more patient-centric approach, yet the episode of care contains their interactions with patients (not pleasant moments).

While they work to overcome this critical difficulty in their strategy, customer-centric organizations are already entering the space. Early detection has the potential to become a new battleground since it has the dual benefit of supporting a patient-centric business model while also shedding light on illness dynamics before they attract attention from practitioners.

Wearables will play a pivotal role in life science.

The research is advancing rapidly. Their ability to measure physiological and biochemical values can aid detect diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Titans, startups, and a few forward-thinking life science organizations see the value of devices that can collect data at all hours of the day and night. 

To consider these devices reliable instruments in healthcare, researchers must address a few key issues.

They must grow lighter, smaller, and more flexible to be worn comfortably. They have to move naturally with the skin and become unnoticeable. They need to broaden and fine-tune the scope of their measurements in light of the results. Finally, they must maintain continuity, allowing them to be as independent of electronics or power supply as possible.

Three recent advances demonstrate intriguing progress in these domains.

Bio-Sensitive Transistors

Recent research on transistors with biochemically sensitive gates promises to broaden their impact on human life.

Tuning transistors to only respond to particular compounds will improve detection accuracy and optimize the exploration versus exploitation approach, as their sensitivity can increase upon detection of a single molecule.

Wearable technology, such as e-rings, e-fabrics, and smartwatches, is currently being tried on cancer survivors in clinical trials. They will contribute to the development of pre and post-therapy treatment changes.

Takeaway

Transistors sensitive to biomarkers and other chemical molecules can eliminate invasive procedures, predict detection by increasing frequency, and seamlessly expand test ranges.

Biofilm-Powered Wearables

The ubiquity of bacteria makes them very interesting to address a set of issues, including their use as a power source and a means of generating electricity.

Researchers have shown that microbial biofilms created from a sustainable feedstock of non-living microbes (G. sulfurreducens strains CL-1) can generate electricity from the evaporation of water.

By harvesting moisture and sweat directly from the skin, a 40-micron thick prototype device has produced the same energy of microbial fuel cells, with the undoubtful advantage of not requiring a continuous organic feedstock to maintain cell viability.

Additional trials with a hybrid, still thin 3D version (scaffolding together non-living G. sulfurreducens and E. coli), improved the device capabilities further with 165% and 227% increases in voltage and current, respectively, compared to the original device.

Takeaway

By creating energy and capturing moisture and sweat directly from the skin, biofilms formed of non-living bacteria can become a light and thin power source for wearables.

Chip-free wireless sensors

MIT researchers created a material that, once worn, vibrates in reaction to heartbeat or salt from perspiration. These vibrations emit an electrical signal read by a nearby receiver.

As a result, the device could wirelessly transmit sensing data with no chip or battery.

This advance is a promising first step, as researchers foresee pairing this material with different selective membranes to monitor other vital biomarkers, like glucose or cortisol levels, in response to stress.

Takeaway

Chip-free wearable sensors that respond to a heartbeat and the salt in sweat by vibrating and sending electric signals could make it easier to track vital biomarkers and gather data remotely in care facilities.

Conclusions

Large life science organizations have become increasingly specialized over the past few years, ignoring that the only way to improve human lives is to invest in knowledge in its broadest sense.

For decades, they have kept contact with patients within the episode of care, driving up expenses without necessarily enhancing the quality of life. They have contributed to the global healthcare problem.

The transition to a patient-centric model demands a constant interchange of data, which can only happen by investing in novel, non-intrusive monitoring techniques.

If life science organizations return to their roots as the custodian of knowledge, they will find that wearable technology is a natural and fruitful next step.

There is not much time left for this shift in mindset. Innovating businesses have broken new ground by creating tools for early disease identification and facilitating treatment adjustments before and after therapy.

Research into these devices must solve key concerns before becoming reliable medical instruments: they need to shrink in size, shed weight, become more pliable, seamlessly connect and reduce energy dependency.

The advent of chip-free devices, biofilms, and bio-sensitive transistors has the power to usher in a new era of healthcare innovation that will improve quality, decrease costs, and expand access.

Investing in wearables for early detection and monitoring manifests the clear intention to walk the walk and finally put the patient at the center of their model.

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Flavio Aliberti Flavio Aliberti brings with him a 22-year track record in consulting around business intelligence, change management, strategy, M&A transformation, IT and SOX auditing for high regulated domains, like Insurance, Airlines, Trade Associations, Automotive, and Pharma. He holds an MSc in Space Aeronautic Engineering from the University of Naples and an MSc in Advanced Information Technology and Business Management from the University of Wales.

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