Wired Health 2016: Organs-on-chips, AI doctors and robot surgeons

We give our thoughts from the Wired Health conference in London.

From 3D printers to the maker revolution – tons of innovations are happening in healthcare. But what sorts of technologies are really going to take tech innovation in healthcare to the next level? At the Wired Health conference in London, neuroscience experts and startups gathered to speak about what we can expect to see in healthcare in the upcoming years.

Below are the main highlights from the event.


Health is colliding with art to drive innovation

Body architect Lucy McRae could be someone that has come from 2050 to deliver a message as she was one of the most interesting speakers on the day. McRae experiments with pushing the human body to extreme limits to see if it “changes brain patterns”. Her background is very interesting as she dabbled with wearables at electronics company Philips before she started testing more provocative things like creating a swallowable perfume which makes the human body sweat a genetically unique scent. Her findings could have profound implications for people who, for instance, suffer from sweating conditions.

McRae also tested a ‘Future Day Spa’ with 100 participants that were put in beds with pressurised sheets and lulled to sleep. She said the responses that came back from the experience were varied with some saying it felt like a “relaxing nightmare” to “feeling like being inside a womb”.  She thinks that companies should start acting like artistic studios to drive innovations.

Organs-on-Chips to aid personalised healthcare

What if you could recreate all the functions of the human body inside a tiny chip? Biotech startup, Emulate is doing just that. These chips could help create safer drugs as the ability to predict human response to drugs has plagued the pharmaceutical industry for years.

Animal testing is not ideal either. “The physiology of animals do not always predict how humans will respond to a drug,” says Geraldine Hamilton, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Emulate. The startup is also experimenting with inducing cancer on a chip to help better understand the disease and is working with DARPA research agency to potentially connect multiple chips together.

Design and the maker health revolution

A while ago, we looked at how DIY surgical robots could be used as an alternative to costly healthcare services. We also looked at how 3D printers are being used to give kids 3D prosthetic hands.

Now, MIT's José Gómez-Márquez says we “need more people in the design process for medical devices”. His main point during his talk is how expensive medical tools have become just because they have been upgraded to become “connected” like an ordinary inhaler that has suddenly become a ‘smart’ inhaler. “£1500 [$2200] just to check grandma is taking her pills is ridiculous,” said Gomez- Márquez. He wants to bridge the digital gap by letting people take ownership of their own data and become part of a larger maker movement where 3D printers and other tools can be used to drive down costs.

Implanted devices could help the paralysed control movement

The Wyss Center, a non-profit organisation is using neuroscience to help people with nervous system disorders. John Donoghue, director at the Wyss Center, is an expert in brain computer interfaces and shows a video of stroke victim, Cathy Hutchinson using her thoughts to control a robotic arm. Donoghue notes that in this particular instance, a lot of heavy machinery and processes was used to make it happen. But in the future, he hopes to see much smaller devices that can be implanted on the human skull to help people like Hutchinson control movements in a more sophisticated way. But there is still a long way to go.

Robots could replace surgeons one day

Virtual Reality is the buzz word everywhere at the moment. In healthcare, there are opportunities for VR to be used for medical training, and now even real-time surgery. A few weeks ago, Dr Shafi Ahmed, co-founder of VR and augmented reality firm Medical Realities performed surgery in VR for the first time. Now on stage, Ahmed says how “five billion people cannot access safe surgery globally” and sees VR assisting a low-cost approach to surgery where people can tune in to a surgery via a VR headset from all around the world. He also didn’t seem too bothered about losing his job in the future as he sees a future where robots will eventually replace surgeons.

AI doctors will ‘complement’ ordinary doctors

While Shafi Ahmed went as far as saying robots will replace surgeons, IBM's Kyu Rhee takes a softer approach and sees AI doctors “complementing doctors”. He sees humans as excelling at certain things like morals, compassion and common sense. Likewise, cognitive systems like IBM’s Watson excel at natural language, pattern identification and diminishing bias. But he cautioned that there is already a lot of data out there we are not utilising properly.

Health kits as prescriptions for our ‘instant gratification’ culture

Tech has propelled humanity into ‘anything less than instantaneous won’t do’ thinking. Thanks to social media networks like Twitter that give users easy access to news, to the rise of companies like Uber where a cab can be hailed in five minutes – we have come to expect things quickly. Unfortunately this type of thinking has also translated into poor eating habits. So what to do? Speaker Dr Molly Maloof says we are “trapped in an age of convenience”. Her answer? Healthy meal kits. I guess if you can’t beat them, you join them. In a healthy way of course.  


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