Technology in healthcare is under the radar but has been advancing exponentially
Most of us quickly associate technology to apps, computers, futuristic machines, and smartphones. The general public sees technology advancing through well publicized rumors that the next smartphone will come out with a better camera and more storage space or that Intel is releasing the next generation of processors. Some tech connoisseurs may even get a bit further, forming well-reasoned opinions on concepts such as AI, cryptocurrency, and other overall technology trends. But the fact is that new technology is not discussed nor debated much as it relates to healthcare.
However, technology improvements have arguably had a bigger impact on the healthcare market than in other areas of our lives in the past few years. For instance, until recently it would have been beyond comprehension to think about using a laser to heal wounds almost immediately, shooting electromagnetic frequency to eliminate kidney stones, or remotely making a micro precision surgery using a robot. Now this is not only possible, but common practice.
Bringing hackers to a new level: biohacking
Genetic engineering — the practice of artificially introducing DNA from an unrelated organism — is happening in many sectors. Transgenic or genetically modified organisms may sound scary to many people, but when asked about the reason for it, the answer is usually something like “transgenic food is dangerous, carcinogenic”. This is incorrect, as transgenic food itself is 100% harmless. In fact, one of the positive reasons we manipulate vegetables’ genes is to make them resistant to harmful pesticides.
The discussion of whether transgenic food is necessary for humanity is still a debate. Yet, the fact is that we became capable of modifying animal and vegetable genes in our favor years ago and are now very good at it. Genetic manipulation has the potential to be an extremely powerful tool for mass creation, control, and protection/healing. A clear example of this is the scientific theory that the Black Plague boosted the presence of a certain genetic mutation in a protein called CCR5 that led to 1 in every 10 Europeans now being immune to HIV. Of course, this “genetic manipulation” happened naturally and over many years without human interference, but resulted in a positive benefit for humanity. The potential for scientists to replicate the same mutation artificially demonstrates the kind of impact that genetic manipulation may have, and this may not be too far away. In October 2019, in a speech in Cambridge Union, Bill Gates followed this same rationale in the context of Malaria, saying that “what we’ve learned in recent years is that the key to stopping Malaria is vector control. Gene editing lets us target only the bad Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Inserting a gene that prevents these bad mosquitoes from reproducing would buy us time to cure all the people in an area of Malaria. Then we could let the mosquito population return without the parasite.”
While genetic manipulation is a promising method of controlling many harmful diseases, we should also pay attention to the groundbreaking technology taking place in the genetics field. This year, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded a Nobel Prize for their development of CRISPR/Cas9, a method used for genome editing. This technique is completely revolutionizing gene editing by using the combination of a DNA cutting protein and an RNA molecule bound together to edit particular sequences of DNA. This allows for entire parts of it to be edited, disabled or tracked through the attachment of fluorescent proteins to the complex. All in all, it basically means that we finally found out the way to edit the DNA accurately. While this groundbreaking technique keeps improving, we still have a lot to discover about how to map genomes more efficiently to know how to safely change the right parts of the DNA for a certain disease to be cured.
However, genetic interpretation is extremely complex and one of the bottlenecks for a series of improvements in the genetic field. Scientists currently rely on somewhat manual processes to analyze and map genetic mutations, which does not seem up to date with the technological progress elsewhere. To tackle this challenge, Mindset Ventures invested in a startup that is making significant improvements in how genetic mutations are tracked: Emedgene. The company is working on a way to automatize the genome’s interpretation by using artificial intelligence to read vast amounts of data and automatically identify genetic mutations. Scientists are working to find the cure for HIV, dramatically reduce cancer lethality, and cure many other diseases by manipulating genes. Still, we will only get there if we know with which genes we have to work. Emedgene is demonstrating that improvements in the genome interpretation field are critical before we can finally have total control over genetic manipulation.
Artificial intelligence is becoming the doctor’s new pair of glasses
Although the medical ultrasound technology was invented back in 1939, it took a few decades to improve to the point that it could be broadly used for diagnostics. 3D ultrasound, which generates much more accurate images of the analyzed objects, was developed not too long ago, in the past 40 years. Ultrasound-based analyses rely mostly on images, and until very recently depended solely on our visual observation of anomalies and exceptional patterns to diagnose potential diseases.
This is why Mindset Ventures invested in a company that took a novel approach to ultrasounds: instead of looking for ultrasound image quality improvements, it applies artificial intelligence to diagnose certain diseases through ultrasound images with much greater accuracy and agility than the methods widely used so far. DiA has already created several patents in this segment and has been growing significantly in the past few years.
This is just one example of how artificial intelligence may be applied in the healthcare segment. The scope of tasks performed by AI in this field extends to several other applications, ranging from managing workflow and administrative tasks to assisting robotic surgeries. Even so, just 14% of medical imaging professionals (mostly radiology professionals) have been using machine learning already, and 27% are two to three years away from adopting the technology, according to a research conducted by Reaction Data.
The future of AI in healthcare seems very encouraging: the AI health market is expected to reach US$ 6.6 billion by 2021, representing a compound annual growth rate of 40% since 2014, according to a research conducted by Accenture. The research also calculates the benefits for the American economy by 2026 and concludes that, by then, savings due to improvements in healthcare generated by artificial intelligence may be around US $150 billion. In other words, we should see increased adoption of artificial intelligence in the medical field every year, and this trend will only continue.
Using statistics and algorithms to improve healthcare
Technological improvements in healthcare may also extend beyond the use-cases directly related to treatments. Although the importance of technology in surgeries, diagnoses and other tasks will continue, we are also seeing major advances in the workflow and administrative tasks behind the scenes in hospitals.
In that regard, Mindset Ventures’ portfolio company KenSci aims at fighting death through data science, by using statistics to predict who will get sick and how sick they will get before it even happens, enabling doctors to act earlier. Apprentice Health is another company in our portfolio that applies technology to hospital operations by scanning and improving their workflow, consequently increasing patients’ satisfaction, and decreasing allocation inefficiencies.
A universe of opportunities lies ahead
One of our favorite examples of the power of technology is that the guidance computer used in the Apollo 11 spacecraft had 100,000 times less processing power than an iPhone does today, and it still took man to the Moon. The potential for scientific innovation using the only technology we currently have at our fingertips is almost limitless. When we talk about healthcare, the exact same applies. A few centuries ago, we had a limited understanding of what caused simple diseases such as scurvy. Nowadays, we have a sophisticated process every year to pinpoint and update the vaccines used to fight the annual flu. With the brightest minds and powerful existing technologies pointed at challenges such as controlling COVID-19 and preventing future pandemics, curing cancer and other serious illnesses, the future of healthcare seems bright. We have a huge amount of technological power in our hands, now it is just a matter of what we do with it.