Last week WIRED Health gathered hundreds of leaders and influencers from across the globe in London to discuss the field of health innovation and technology. In addition to their long lists of honors and historic accolades, the unrivaled lineup of speakers brought an infectious enthusiasm for action in healthcare.
Peter Piot of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine set the scale of the challenge, charging the audience to strive for truly global health when he spoke about epidemics. Co-discoverer of the Ebola virus and a pioneering researcher in HIV/AIDS, Peter imparted the wisdom that human behavior and prevention of disease are intimately entwined. He spoke of a need to fight on two fronts: driving tirelessly to find cures whilst working on “prevention beyond pills.”
The genomics theme of the day focused on cancer diagnosis and treatment spurred by the startling statistic that the U.S. death rate from cancer is almost unchanged since 1970—despite President Richard Nixon “declaring war on cancer” in 1971. Helmy Eltoukhy of Guardant Health talked of “conquering cancer with data” by building the largest database of cancer genomes (40,000 and growing). The data, derived from only a few teaspoons of blood from a liquid biopsy, is already leading to better diagnosis and treatment choices. These sentiments were shared by Jurgi Camblong of Sophia Genetics who is working to make cancer “a disease we live with, not die from.” Together, both projects leverage data from vast numbers of genomes using machine learning tools to extract important information from what would previously been considered “genetic noise.”
Sally Davies from the U.K. Department Health detailed more local efforts by Genomics England, which is gathering 100,000 whole genomes from patients and their families. The data is then intelligently shared within the UK National Health Service to improve the diagnosis and treatment of rare diseases and cancer. The session was concluded by Waseem Qasim (GOSH), who works on translating this information into stem cell transplants and gene therapies. In 2015 Waseem made history and headlines with the first in-human use of gene-edited T-cell therapy for early childhood leukemia treatment. After positive results, a number of Phase I trials have now begun with hopes of creating universally compatible immune cells.
Data was also a major topic of discussion in later sessions. Jessica Mega of Alphabet’s Verily and Jasmin Fisher from Microsoft Research explored how their companies are exploiting the data crossover between healthcare and emerging technologies, such as driverless cars. Jessica spoke of Verily’s focus on solutions that place the patient as the “end user” at the fore, with projects like the glucose-monitoring contact lens currently under development in their labs. Jasmin’s Cambridge-based lab works on what she dubbed “executable biology,” an interface that allows non-coders to construct computational models of cells, proteins, and signalling that unlock the “programs” run by healthy and diseased cells.
Between the speaker sessions, attendees had the opportunity to network and explore the day’s themes in a more interactive way by trying-out VR and AR headsets, movement trackers, and haptics training systems—there was even the chance to perform a virtual knee arthroplasty.
Back at the main stage, the New Therapies speakers offered bold and radical glimpses of possible future treatments, including the Sync Project by Marko Ahtisaari. The platform uses personalized music as a drug alternative by exploiting the psychostimulant effects experienced when listening to sounds. Results have shown positive effects for depression, anxiety, insomnia, and pain management, with major reductions in opiate use post-surgery. Khaliya spoke of the global crisis from mental health problems and substance abuse causing the majority of disability worldwide. She suggested clinicians should adopt the term “mental injury” and explore psychedelics as a permanent fix to the decades of conventional pain relief and antidepressant medication use that are failing current patients. The session was concluded by Kriss Famm of Galvani Bioelectronics, which is developing treatments for over 20 chronic diseases by controlling the central nervous system with electronic implants placed on or near nerves.
A host of new devices and medtech were also on show from U.K. companies and further afield. Highlights included the portable real-time DNA/RNA sequencers from Oxford Nanopore, where relentless miniaturization is taking genome sequencing from the desktop to the smartphone, and with it granting increased access to billions around the world.
Under the theme of Ending Ageing, the powerful and deeply personal story of Matt Eagles brought the ultimate goal of each of the day’s speakers sharply into focus. Unusually, Matt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was eight years old, but since then was able to work as a professional photographer, skydive, and speak at the conference, thanks to revolutionary treatment with deep brain stimulation.
Later, Daisy Robinton of Boston Children’s Hospital talked of “marrying compassion and humanity with technology” and using CRISPR to advance off-the-shelf cellular replacement therapies that could correct genetic defects and increase our resilience to the “disease” of aging.
In one of the boldest talks of the day, Elizabeth Parrish, herself the world’s first recipient of two elective gene therapies to counter aging, challenged the audience to confront the underlying cause of aging and disease. Her company, BioViva, developed the gene therapies that she controversially self-administered and hopes to rapidly advance toward clinical use in humans.
Later in the afternoon, attendees heard from Beth Healey (ESA), who spent more than a year as a clinician on an Antarctic base, in an -80C/-112F environment where even bacteria cannot survive. She talked about how to deal with future medical problems from extreme environments, including space travel, and the consequences of losing all exposure to natural light, as she did in the long polar night.
David Halpern from the U.K. Government’s Behavioural Insights Team shared experiences of the surprising successes of “nudge theory” in public health. Through subtle and innovative choices based in experimental psychology, David’s team has reportedly reduced unnecessary prescriptions, teen pregnancies, and smoking rates and increased exercise and organ donation across the U.K.
Eren Bali spoke about founding Carbon Health after seeing the confusion of managing health conditions in his own family and the potential for a more structured patient-clinician system. Building on Eren’s success with Udemy, the Carbon app coordinates care by condition with virtual and in-person interaction improving patient outcomes and reducing the burden on the local health system.
In parallel with the main speaker sessions, the EY startup stage featured 13 early-stage businesses pitching their concepts to a panel of investors, clinicians, and medtech executives. The pitch competition was won by the team at GiveVision, who are restoring sight for people suffering from low vision with an innovative smartphone-powered headset. Further entrepreneurial spirit was on display in the Sandoz Global HACk, which focused on improving access to healthcare around the world. The three winners of the HACk were: Blood Drive, a team of Maldives natives building an app to enable blood donations and treat the country’s extraordinarily high prevalence of Thalassemia; Save-a-life-app, a team from the Philippines building a community of life-savers who can administer CPR at any time or location; and Pharmacy Connect, a Ghanaian team with an app to efficiently staff rural pharmacies, which are the first point-of-call for sick patients but only have the resources to employ a pharmacist in 30% of cases.
The day was brought to a close with the theme of Unlocking the Brain. Jeremy Freeman from the recently formed Chan Zuckerberg Institute spoke of closing the data analysis loop in revolutionary models of the brain and body. The Institute has the aim of “helping cure, prevent or manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime” and is working on a number of projects, including a human cell atlas, to increase efficiency and sharing in science driven by the simple mantra that “we can’t cure what we don’t understand.”
Attendees glimpsed the future of human-controlled advanced robotics with a talk by Aldo Faisal (Imperial College) that featured piano players using extra thumbs and paraplegics walking with artificial legs. One of the goals of Aldo’s research is to map precise human movement to brain function with the possibility of reverse-engineering the process to create advanced neuro-control of robotic augmentations.
Daniel Kraft from Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine program brought the event to a close and summarized the day with a call to action: “to transform sickcare to healthcare.” He spoke of the need to radically alter how we practice medicine, moving away from siloed systems preoccupied with late-stage disease and instead focusing on prevention by “using our digital exhaust in smart and meaningful ways.”
As with previous WIRED events, it was clear that the day had brought some of the sharpest minds together to begin answering the toughest and most relevant questions in healthcare. This was a celebration of how far healthcare has come in our lifetimes and an inspiration for the distances it still has to travel.
WIRED Health returns to London in March 2018.
Link: WIRED Health…