I WOULD NEVER have met Harriett were it not for our mutual friend, Linda. I’m a physician in Northern California; Harriett’s a communications executive in New York City. Linda co-founded an online personal genomics company, to which Harriett and I each sent our genetic information for analysis.
Linda introduced us after she saw that Harriett and I had something in common: a rare type of mitochondrial DNA, which meant we were distantly related. It turns out that we also share that genealogy with a prehistoric celebrity: Ötzi the Iceman, whose 5,300-year-old frozen corpse was discovered in the Alps in 1991. For fun, I even started a Facebook group for people with the same DNA variant as Ötzi and Harriett and me.
USEFUL DNA ORIGAMI
Bioengineers have made nanoscale tetrahedrons, bunnies, and more by folding DNA into origami. They enter the desired shape into an algorithm that determines how to bend a long…
I tell this story to make a point. Harriett and I met over a feat of biomedical science—mass-market, low-cost gene analysis—that once was unimaginable and now is commonplace. The convergence of digital technologies and social platforms made it possible for us to learn our genotypes and share what we found out with the online universe.
Since then, we’ve seen an explosion of tech-driven gains and innovations that have the potential to reshape many aspects of health and medicine. All around us, technologies from artificial intelligence (AI) to personal genomics and robotics are advancing exponentially, giving form to the future of medicine.
The innovations I describe here—many of which are still in early stages—are impressive in their own right. But I also appreciate them for enabling the shift away from our traditional compartmentalized health care toward a model of “connected health.” We have the opportunity now to connect the dots—to move beyond institutions delivering episodic and reactive care, primarily after disease has developed, into an era of continuous and proactive care designed to get ahead of disease. Think of it: ever present, analytics-enabled, real-time, individualized attention to our health and well-being. Not just to treat disease, but increasingly, to prevent it.
BLINK AND THERE’LL BE A BIONIC EYEBuilding a bionic eye has many challenges, but researchers may have just solved one of them: Using 3D technology, they printed an array of light receptors on a glass eye-shaped object. The silver particles they used as “ink” stayed put, despite the curved surface, and the photodiodes converted light into electricity with 25 percent efficiency. Next step: More light receptors and a softer surface to make the implant more comfortable. —Rachel Hartigan Shea
In the old model of medicine, patients’ health data was collected only intermittently, primarily in clinic visits, and scattered among paper files and siloed electronic medical record systems. Today there’s a far better option: personal technology that can monitor vital signs continuously and record health data comprehensively.
Just a decade after the first Fitbit launched the “wearables” revolution, health tracking devices are ubiquitous. Most are used to measure and document fitness activities. In the future these sensing technologies will be central to disease prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. They’ll measure health objectively, detect changes that may indicate a developing condition, and relay patients’ data to their clinicians.
Flexible, electronic medical tattoos and stick-on sensors can take an electrocardiogram, measure respiratory rate, check blood sugar, and transmit results seamlessly via Bluetooth. It’s mobile vital sign tracking, but at a level once found only in an intensive care unit.SPECIAL ISSUETHE FUTURE OF MEDICINE
Hearing aids or earbuds with embedded sensors will not only amplify sound but also track heart rate and movement. Such smart earpieces also could be integrated with a digital coach to cheer on a runner, or a guide to lend assistance to dementia patients.
Smart contact lenses in the future will be packed with thousands of biosensors, and engineered to pick up early indicators of cancer and other conditions. Lenses now in development may someday measure blood sugar values in tears, to help diabetics manage diet and medications.
KEEPING AN EYE ON HEALTHForget the finger-prick blood test. The race is on to create contact lenses that track glucose levels from tears. South Korean researchers have been able to attach transparent, flexible electronics that won’t block vision while wirelessly relaying electricity to run glucose sensors. —Eve ConantPHOTOGRAPH BY KIM KYOUNG CHAE, UNIST
Implantable devices may include a radio-frequency ID chip under the skin that holds a patient’s medical records, or a subcutaneous sensor that could continuously monitor blood chemistry. Ingestible devices in capsules will deploy once swallowed to perform tasks in the gastrointestinal system, from delivering treatment to isolating foreign objects.