5 talking points from WIRED Health 2017

Bold and audacious, WIRED Health 2017 aims to challenge the health industry to transform.

Main auditorium @ WIRED Health 2017

Now in its 5th year, WIRED’s annual healthcare conference brings together leading technologists, clinicians, researchers, and entrepreneurs shaping the health industry today.

I personally left the event having more questions about the future of health than I had answers to. The biggest one for me was, what should the future of health look like?

In order to attempt to answer that question, I break down 5 talking points (in no particular order) from WIRED Health 2017.

1. Fierce conversations about editing the human genome and human enhancement

Dr. Daisy Robinton, a post-doctoral scientist at Boston Children’s hospital in Massachusetts, tells her story about her work in stem cell research and elegantly breaks down the fundamentals of CRISPR gene-editing technology.

Dr. Daisy Robinton explaining the fundamentals of CRISPR

While the idea of gene-editing isn’t new, the introduction of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique is significant — it gives researchers a cheap, powerful tool for gene editing.

CRISPR is transforming how research is being carried out and allows the development of new therapeutics. Conditions caused by known mutations in our genome, including many forms of cancers, sickle cell anaemia, and Huntington’s disease, in theory, could potentially be ended using gene-editing technology.

Chinese scientists have even recently carried out a clinical trial using CRISPR-Cas9 in a patient with lung cancer. They removed immune cells from the recipient’s blood and then disabled a gene in them using CRISPR-Cas9 in the hope that the immune cells can be reprogrammed to attack and destroy the cancer cells.

This technology enables healthcare to be more precise and personalized. As it leaps from labs to the clinic, patients could one day be able to undergo genetic “surgery” to potentially swap harmful mutations with healthy DNA.

While this is all exciting and full of potential, we collectively need to have a fierce conversation about where we want to head with the use of this powerful technology.

If we do reach a point where we can edit our genes with great precision, should we use gene-editing to enhance ourselves and the future generations of humanity? Just because we can, does it mean we should?

Dr. Robinton has highlighted the need to ask these tough questions as we move forward with the development of gene-editing tech. Without stifling innovation, we need to address these concerns now to develop safe use of gene-editing tech and ensure it isn’t misused.

2. The crusade on aging

It was refreshing to see aging being addressed seriously at WIRED Health 2017. Extending the life-span of humans seems like an idea straight out of a sci-fi novel. And rightly so, as many remain skeptical about our ability and need to extend human life.

Asking most people on their thoughts on longevity, many would say things like:

“Wait, what? Why would anyone want to live longer?”

It’s difficult to understand and tough to get right down to the exact reason why many don’t want to live longer. However, this crusade on aging should definitely be taken more seriously and remains as an interesting area to watch.

Many of our biggest troublemakers in healthcare such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases continue to become more widespread. They will continue to put a strain on our healthcare systems.

A common trend that crops up in many of these conditions is that they tend to manifest as we age. It could be argued that aging is largely natural. We are born into world, live our lives, and then stop living after a period of time.

Is cancer ‘natural’ too? After all, 1 in 2 people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime in the UK. Cardiovascular disease could also be considered ‘natural’, with approximately 26% of all deaths in the UK alone being caused by it.

We do our very best to stop these conditions from happening in the first place or therapeutically intervene to halt them in their tracks. Yet, that doesn’t happen for aging, a huge risk factor for many of these conditions.

3. Data, data, and more data

Data is our modern day double-edged sword — although there is much potential in our data, it’s crazy to see how we’re drowning in it as we’re generating so much of it everyday.

Big data own its own is pretty much dumb data.

Jeremy Freeman from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has pointed out the struggles of making sense of raw data. It’s definitely a bottleneck in science, with a lot of time spent on reinvention in managing data, as he mentioned in his talk.

Jeremy Freeman of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

It’s extremely exciting to see the democratization of AI and machine learning algorithms through the efforts of organizations like OpenAI (Universe) and the Google Brain Team (TensorFlow). However, there is more to be done within the science community in managing data and making it reproducible.

This is exactly why I’m really excited to see an open, modular system to collate the data from all the labs, and making it available, being built at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative together with their collaborators.

Science will face a hard time if we can’t find better ways to address these issues — there is little point in having so much information locked up and siloed.

Innovative progress can only be made when we openly disseminate research; this is critical to a healthy exchange of ideas and the acceptance of contributions from others, which in turn leads to rapid progress in the field.

Sam Altman of Y Combinator summed it best in his tweet below:

4. Health professionals need to find a seat at the table

The best designed technology is almost like magic. You shouldn’t have to think about how to use it and whether your actions translate into your desired outcome — it should just work.

Take the glasses that you wear, for example. It’s a great piece of tech. You don’t have to adjust anything to correct your vision. Just put them on and it automatically does it for you.

After 2.5 years into medical school, I’ve certainly realized how many health professionals are allergic to new technology, especially software and hardware.

That is no surprise, given how poorly designed current tools are for clinicians. A lack of empathy when designing new tools is apparent.

Here in Sheffield, I have seen many clinicians struggle to even view simple blood test results or get access to scans on their internal health record systems.

Tools for patients are similar. Being on a Paediatrics rotation in Scunthorpe, I see parents still carrying notebooks to keep track of their child’s immunizations or a peak flow diary for their child’s asthma.

Being a patient, can you possibly imagine having to carry many tools around to keep track of your condition? There is still a need to build solutions with a better user-experience for end-users.

We need tools with a great operating system (eg it works well) and an awesome user interface (eg designed with end-users in mind).

That is part of the mission of Verily Life Sciences, Alphabet’s health-focused arm and a graduate of Google X (now just X). Dr. Jessica Mega is Verily’s Chief Medical Officer, a cardiologist by background.

Dr. Jessica Mega of Verily Life Sciences

She is responsible for Verily’s products, creating health platforms, and translating them into systems that improve outcomes. I was thrilled that she highlighted the need to think about solutions with designing for the end-user in mind.

And that’s where clinicians and other health professionals bring a lot of value. Being on the front lines in hospitals and the clinic, they have great insight to what goes on in a clinical setting and would be able to help translate problems into solutions.

I’ve spoken to many of my fellow colleagues. The answer I frequently get when we speak about getting involved in tech usually goes along the lines of:

“But I know very little about computers and technology! I don’t want to get involved.”

Science and technology influence our ability to do what we do. It’s so important that we engage with others outside our circle working on these problems.

The best solutions to our problems in healthcare will come from diverse teams. That is why we have to engage and take a seat at the table. Standing on the sidelines and watching everything unfold around us is not what we should do.

We can change things by showcasing our ideas and experiences, while explaining how and why they can be used in building better tools that we and our patients can benefit from.

5. Pushing the boundaries of humanity

The exploration of space is crucial to the future of humanity. I’ve previously detailed the need to continue exploring space and colonize the Red Planet.

Abandoning space exploration is a big slap to the face of humanity. It’s just like telling our greatest explorers, upon from returning from new lands, to drop everything they’re doing and burn all the equipment and the ships.

Humans have always been fundamentally curious.

We have an instinct to push our boundaries and seek answers to quench our thirst for knowledge.

We dream. We build. And we explore. It’s who we are and it’s encoded right into our DNA.

Going to Mars is going to be one of the greatest adventures that we, as a species, will undertake. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a walk in the park though.

There is still much that we need to understand about the implications of being so far away from Earth on the health of astronauts.

This where Dr. Beth Healey of the the European Space Agency enters the picture. At WIRED Health 2017, she details her experiences about life at the extreme.

Dr. Healey has spent just over a year at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian research facility built 3,233m above sea level on the Antarctic Plateau in Antarctica.

Her experiences are a glimpse of what is in store for future astronauts going to Mars. She spoke about going many days without seeing the Sun, isolation and sensory deprivation, and living in a harsh, cold environment.

“Welcome to the planet.” Source: SpaceX

The work that she has carried out is crucial as we push to travel through space in our attempt to colonize Mars. I found her work on how crew members interacted with one another to be very interesting.

Members of the crew were all given activity watches to wear all the time, which not only monitored personal activity levels and basic markers of physiology (eg heart rate, sleep patterns) but also the interaction with other crew members and location in the station.

The watches could detect who were together in a room and in which stations crew members were. This allowed her to observe how relationships developed and altered among the crew.

Dr. Healey’s research also detailed the changes in the wiring of the brain — all crew members had brain scans performed on them before and after their stay on Concordia.

There is definitely no test that can tell us whether the notion of being in an unfamiliar place (more than 50 million kilometers from home), while working and living with a small crew, can shatter our minds into million of pieces.

It will definitely be interesting to see the published results of her work. It’s important not only in our quest to explore space, but also to help us right here on Earth. The human factors are just as important as the technological factors when influencing our exploration of space.

That concludes my 5 talking points from WIRED Health 2017. So, what should the future of health look like?

Well, it should definitely look like how we want it to be.

We have a choice to form, execute, and contribute on a deliberate plan to build the future. Or we can sit around doing nothing while waiting for something magical to happen.

That is only possible if the health and biotech industry as a whole remains focused on exponential, rather incremental progress. Advances in science and technology aren’t going to magically improve over time or are automatically developed as good.

It involves working closely together with one another to make things happen.

Some technologies get worse over time if bright people don’t work on them like crazy to make it better and get it out to other people.

Take a good look at rocket technology. In 1969, the Saturn V rocket took astronauts to moon during the Apollo 11 mission. On the other hand, the Space Shuttle, which was later developed, was only capable of taking people to low-earth orbit.

Or how about antibiotics? When were the newest classes of antibiotics last discovered?

Let’s make sure we put the needs of people at the centre of our attention, while not outlawing innovation.

It was amazing to have Matt Eagles at the conference to tell his story. He has been living with Parkinson’s disease since the age of 7.

His story was touching and moving, as he shared intimate details of his life and the struggle with his condition. He puts clear perspective in our lives — that we shouldn’t take our health for granted and we can’t shy away in our attempts to improve the lives of the people around us.

Everyone deserves an equal footing to live life at the highest quality. People like Matt serve as our North Star — a guiding light in the darkness that surrounds us.

Man of the hour — Matt Eagles (pictured right)
People hate what they do not understand.

In closing, we (health professionals, governments, researchers, the media) are responsible to ensure that the rest of society are aware of what we are attempting to do and get others involved — everything from developing therapeutics to improving our healthcare systems.

We have to outline our values and make sure that they are clearly reflected in our actions.

In the next 5, 10, or 20 years, I would dislike to have a conversation with a patient about how there is nothing that can be done for them about their condition.

I think that would represent a failure of the industry as a whole. This is something that we can choose to avoid but only if we work like crazy to make it happen.