London hosted the Wired Health conference last week, where speakers framed their conversations around how innovations in healthcare are driving the industry forward.
In previous years, the exhibition hall of the conference was full of gadgets used for self-monitoring and tracking. With the advent of wearables such as the Fitbit, we have become preoccupied with tracking our own health data.
But one of the gaps in this technology that has yet to be bridged is how we as individual patients are able to share our own self-monitored data with our healthcare providers and use it in a meaningful way.
Interestingly, the exhibition hall seemed to have fewer gadgets that centered on self-tracking this year and more devices that were aimed at education.
Virtual reality goggles immersed the wearer in a 3-D view of how certain functions of the body worked, from neurons firing in the brain to blood cells moving through the body.
And the typical medical textbook was given an overhaul by utilizing holograms of the body that seemed to jump out of the page.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, several speakers presented the ways they are moving health forward in this ever-changing landscape of medical technology.
Theory into practice: Maker Health
"We don't just want you to talk about these innovations in healthcare, we want you to make them and hold them in your hand," said Maker Health co-founder Anna Young to the large conference crowd.
She currently leads the Little Devices Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) International Design Center.
Young and her colleagues regularly look at medical devices, take them apart, and see how they work. Speaking to the crowd, she explained that within a hospital setting, nurses have always been innovators, hacking into supply closets and creating solutions more appropriate for the patients in front of them.
This is where the term "maker nurses" comes from. Young explained that these nurses' solutions are often cheaper than the usual developments, and they are essentially inventing new ways of delivering care.
Termed "just in time" manufacturing and design, the solutions the nurses create are typically assembled on the patient's bedside, as each patient is unique.
This type of on-the-fly innovation is particularly apt when, for example, a hospital is in the middle of a hurricane and frontline staff need to solve problems as they come up, with whatever materials they have to hand.
Inspired by this way of working, Young and colleagues have been setting up official spaces in some hospitals, where doctors and nurses are encouraged to "go tinker." Stocked with everything, from bandages to 3-D printers, these spaces allow them to customize medical equipment and create new devices.
But of course, there are challenges in empowering people on the front line to take the initiative to create new solutions.
"It's important to make a culture around allowing this to happen. It's not just about a space, it's about a culture."
Anna Young, Maker Health
The interesting thing about this innovation is that the concept itself has been around for more than 100 years; nurses have been customizing medical equipment as they go, but often their ideas have not spread beyond their own unit.
By creating an official space within a unit for doctors and nurses to create, Young hopes the innovations will be allowed to proliferate.
Practice into theory: Lucy McRae
The fusion of art and medicine is not one that we see on a regular basis. But Lucy McRae, sci-fi artist and self-proclaimed body architect, constantly seeks to merge the two in novel ways.
A former ballerina and runner, she explained to the audience that she has been exploring the limitations of her body for years.
"As an artist," she said, "my agenda is to provide unconventional ways of asking what are the conditions of possibility."
Her so-called disruptive exploration of technology has yielded some unexpected projects. In one, she developed wearable costumes that project animations based on what is going on in the wearer's body, be it increased heart rate or perspiration.
Another project, termed the "Future Day Spa," has clients lying down under vacuum-sealed pressurized sheets, where they close their eyes and relax. Meanwhile, their basic biodata are measured.
But it was her "Swallowable Parfum" that had the pharmaceutical industry calling. In 2011, she created a cosmetic pill that uses the body's own processes to break down fats. It is then excreted through glands when the user perspires.
The video below demonstrates McRae's filmmaking skills as she promotes the pill:
She explained that although several companies wanted to commercialize the product, they were not aware of the medical benefits that could follow. For people with excessive sweating conditions, such as hyperhidrosis, McRae says the pill could provide hope.
She is currently embarking on a project called "The Institute of Isolation," in which she is exploring the psychology of isolation on herself. Her goal is for the work to inform long-haul space travel in the future.
"I am an honest believer that if you can operate more like an artistic studio - allow for chaos, serendipity in any kind of innovative technology process, you open up more possibility than what you would have ever imagined."
Putting the body onto a chip
The body is a complex system of interactions, which makes studying disease outside of it very difficult. Predicting the human response to drugs can be very challenging, which is what scientists face when testing new medications.
How do we emulate the body's response to these drugs? Geraldine Hamilton and colleagues from the aptly named company, Emulate, came up with a solution that is seemingly simple and scaled-back, yet beautifully elegant.
Geraldine Hamilton shows the Organs-on-Chips technology at Wired Health.
Their Organs-on-Chips technology puts live human cells into miniaturized engineered environments to resemble the conditions of human organs.
Speaking to the crowd at Wired Health, Hamilton described the chips as a "home away from home for the cells."
With these chips, researchers can study how biology works, how drugs work, and what side effects the drugs might have on the human body. One of the major issues in clinical trials is liver failure, but there's a chip for that: the liver chip.
They also have an intestine chip, skin chip, and they are currently working on a brain chip to further examine the blood-brain barrier.
Other avenues of research made possible by this tiny, elegant chip involve putting patient-specific stem cells on the chips to better understand elusive diseases. They are also planning to induce cancer on a chip to better grasp how the immune system can fight the disease.
The chip is at the forefront of precision medicine, potentially helping us to understand the effects of foods, chemicals, and disease on our health.
And the chip not only serves a noble function, it also has a pretty face; in 2015, London's Design Museum named the chip overall winner of the "Design of the Year" award. It is also part of a permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, NY.
Although the theme and tone of this year's Wired Health conference were markedly different from last year's, the use of technology as a disruptive exploration into healthcare was ever-present.
One of Anna Young's colleagues from MIT, José Gómez-Márquez, expanded upon the theme when he spoke about taking back our own health data through "DIY healthcare."
Through an MIT initiative, he and his colleagues are looking into showing consumers how to generate devices that produce personal data as a kit - so they can own their data as well as the means of production for that device.
After all, at the end of the day, is it not the patient who should be empowered to take charge of their own health?
This year's conference reminds us that innovation does not only have to come from the top down, it is also possible to create useful solutions inspired by the things around us.