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There Will Be No “Mars Generation” Without These Technologies

NASA is set to send astronauts to orbit Mars and return them safely by the mid 2030s. And a manned landing on the Red Planet will soon follow. However, this work will be in vain if health technology does not advance.

My parents were members of the Apollo generation. The amazing accomplishment of putting men on the Moon defined their era, stretching the boundaries of what humanity can achieve. But after the last Moon landing, no more exciting breakthroughs emerged. Global attention to space declined. Until now.

Visionaries like Elon Musk and Richard Branson are making spaceflight exciting again – turning our children into the Mars generation. Indeed, NASA is set to send astronauts to orbit Mars and return them safely by the mid 2030s. And a manned landing on the Red Planet will soon follow. However, this work will be in vain if health technology does not advance.

THE HAZARDS OF GETTING MAN TO MARS

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Image credit: NASA

The trip to Mars takes around seven months, which is a only a little longer than the time astronauts spend on the International Space Station; however, counting their mission, orbit around Mars, landing, and return, the journey will take years.

Spaceflight has a serious effect on astronauts. Variations in temperature and radiation levels, motion sickness, losing bone and muscle mass despite doing exercises, disruption of vision and taste…all of these cause health issues, not to mention the psychological consequences of space travel.

Unfortunately, today, our health can only be effectively monitored by sensors that, at the present time, fill a room. Treating an injury such as a broken bone—a simple matter on Earth—requires medical manufacturing capabilities, capabilities that we don’t have on the Red Planet.

The technologies we need to solve the aforementioned issues exist, but they are in their infancy. Telemedicine is inaccurate and unregulated; genome sequencing is used in the rarest of cases and only by top medical institutions; 3D printing in medicine is the playground of citizen scientists, but has yet to advance into a viable and effective method of treatment.

The sad fact is, we don’t stand a chance of getting to Mars without a booming digital health industry. With that in mind, here are the top inventions and technologies we need if we ever hope to make a new home for humanity on Mars.

3D PRINTERS THAT CAN CREATE EVERYTHING AVAILABLE IN A DOCTOR’S OFFICE

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Printing with a 3D printer at Makers Party: Via WikiMedia

As astronauts will be alone and cannot bring all the supplies for a lengthy stay on the Red Planet, they will need printers that can print out medical equipment, prosthetics, and drugs on demand. Bringing the ingredients for these, and printing out what is needed on site, makes more sense than bringing a few types of equipment and drugs which could only help under limited circumstances.

Astronauts could establish manufacturing by designing printers that can print out other printers. The whole idea of 3D printing is going to be essential to them. It has been shown that customized prosthetics can be printed out, some forms of medical equipment, and even drug used in epilepsy. The basic examples are here already or trends seem to be pointing into this direction. So the future is looking bright.

WEARABLE AND IMPLANTED BODY SENSORS

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Credit: Professor Takao Someya

Forget smart clothes and devices that can measure your ECG or pulse with a smartphone. On a trip to Mars, every ounce of cargo matters. Without tiny sensors that can measure every important vital sign and health parameter, crew members will not be able to make medical decisions.

Today’s wearable trackers are big, get discharged quickly, and are hard to work with. Astronauts cannot rely on them. Digital tattoos and implanted microchips could do the job without the active participation of astronauts. These would measure every relevant parameter and let them know when there is something they should take care of. The Japanese Professor Someya has been developing such tattoos with his team; as well as the MC10 company.

FULL GENOMIC ANALYSIS TO IDENTIFY ASTRONAUTS’ HEALTH RISKS

Since they won’t have access to proper healthcare for years, knowing what major conditions the Martian astronauts might face would be highly beneficial, indeed, even necessary. A full genome sequencing, assisted by microbiome tests and other lab markers, will let physicians partially predict what major diseases they will probably encounter in their lives and what they can do to try to avoid most of them. This includes what diet to choose based on the types of bacteria they live with and what lab markers to regularly re-check to catch a disease before it would develop.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE THAT CAN DRAW CONCLUSIONS FROM LIVE HEALTH DATA

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IBM’s Watson computer, Yorktown Heights, NY. Via: WikiMedia

No matter how sophisticated sensors are, measurements will not help with day-to-day issues unless there are smart algorithms that can make suggestions. Astronauts will have no constant contact with Earth, and they cannot have all the skills of an experienced physician, researcher, and data analyst.

Algorithms will do this job for them. This will help them get the most out of each day to exploit the theoretical limits of efficiency.

TELEMEDICAL SOLUTIONS THAT ALLOW REMOTE CARE

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Image credit: ITouch

Even though the distance is big between physicians here and the crew on Mars, high quality communication with specialized caregivers on Earth will be an essential part of their care. As was mentioned, the distance and delay in communication will make it tricky, but from time to time, communication with a real doctor will be absolutely necessary.

While the future of smart algorithms used in healthcare is bright, human supervision will still be a crucial part of making sure they are on the right track. InTouch Health is a good example.

THIN EXOSKELETONS TO AUGMENT HUMAN STRENGTH AND POWER

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Fortis exoskeleton. Image credit: FORTIS

Lifting huge weights and working tirelessly for long hours will be must-have features on Mars, as astronauts will need to build a base camp. As exoskeletons get thinner and more comfortable, the crew on Mars will use them as frequently as the first astronauts used screwdrivers. Exoskeletons today can already let paralyzed people walk again; let soldiers not get tired of walking for hours or even run faster and jump higher. As long spaceflights weaken their muscles no matter how much they try to exercise in zero gravity, exoskeletons could supply them with the lost strength.

ENGINEERING IN BIOTECHNOLOGY

Astronauts will need to be able to partially engineer life. By life, I mean bacteria, yeast, and even their own immune system if needed. The new genome editing method, CRISPR, could play a major role in this. Systems involving engineering bacteria to produce hormones, antibiotics, or other materials would allow them to use nature as a manufacturing device, even to filter water or create the desired atmosphere. Community labs currently available in California and the iGem competitions have demonstrated in what a wide range of situations bioengineering can offer solutions.

SURGICAL ROBOTS THAT CAN BE OPERATED FROM A DISTANCE

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Image credit: Weyland

There will be cases, almost inevitably, when astronauts will need to undergo surgery. Current surgical robots that perform big operations are controlled by surgeons through a control panel. The movie Prometheus featured a surgical robot capsule that can perform the whole operation on its own. The Mars generation will require an invention somewhere in between. Surgeons on Earth could pre-plan every step, and the robot could perform those steps while being supervised with the time delay digitally.

I truly believe that humans are discoverers – and the next great enterprise is discovering the cosmos, starting with Mars. At first, the task will fall on a few brave people, and we have to make sure we can keep them safe, healthy, and functioning in an environment that is hostile to human life.

We need to upgrade their health with advancements in digital health to make this possible. Luckily, these breakthrough technologies are all within our reach.

Read more about health technologies we will need to reach Mars and how to start upgrading your own health in my new book, My Health: Upgraded,

Top 10 Medical Technologies of 2016

Every year, I publish my predictions for the coming year. As the Medical Futurist, I’m expected to come up with bright visions and I’m happy to rise to the challenge. Last year my predictions included a digital tattoo, portable diagnostic devices thanks to the XPrize Challenge, IBM Watson’s rise to prominence in analyzing big health data, and brain computer interfaces such as Muse or Thync becoming available to the general public. These visions have since become reality.

It’s time to list the 10 major breakthroughs and trends that will dominate healthcare and medicine in 2016.

1) Virtual Reality

Once The New York Times gave out Google Cardboards with its newspapers, it was clear virtual reality was going mainstream. But now that Facebook’s Oculus Rift just became available for pre-order, virtual reality is going to become a booming industry. With really sophisticated devices on the market, it might have its biggest year ever in 2016. It will be used to let medical students gain realistic experience in examining patients or to let patients see what would happen to them the next day at the hospital for stress release.

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2) Augmented Reality

A Novartis chief announced that the digital contact lens patented by Google would become available in 2016. As it will measure blood glucose from tears, it is supposed to change diabetes treatment and management. Moreover, Hololens from Microsoft also comes out in 2016 which will have a huge impact on fields from medical education to architecture and engineering. It could help medical students do dissections for many hours a day from any angles without the formaldehyde smell.

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3) Fibretronics

2015 was not the year of smartclothes no matter how much we anticipated it. Even the ones with the biggest market potentials like HexoSkin were only traditional shirts with built-in devices in their pockets. But fibretronics are clothing materials with microchips implanted into them. They can react to body temperature or the mood of the wearer, among others. Google has started collaborating with Levi’s to create true fibretronic materials, which could be used to interact with technology through our clothes in novel ways. Imagine this in the OR. As the first promising collaborations in this area came out in 2015, expect to see the first tangible results in 2016!

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4) Smart Algorithms Analyzing Wearable Data

2015 was the year of wearable health trackers. A swarm of devices became available, Amazon launched its Wearable Marketplace and millions of activity trackers were sold. But gaining actionable insights from the constant stream of wearable data is not easy. We need clever algorithms and apps that merge data from several devices and apps, and help us draw meaningful conclusions. It would help lay people put more emphasis on prevention and have a healthier lifestyle. I had experience with Exist.io, one of the earliest attempts, but it still needs to go a long way.

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5) Near-Artificial Intelligence in Radiology

IBM’s Watson supercomputer has been used in oncology to assist medical decision-making. It proved the clear benefits of such a system by making diagnoses and treatment cheaper and more efficient. IBM’s Medical Sieve project aims to diagnose most lesions with a smart software, leaving room for radiologists to focus on the most important cases instead of checking hundreds of images every day.

6) Food Scanners

Food scanners like Scio and Tellspec have been in the spotlight since 2014, but as early developer prototypes have already been mailed to their first users in 2015, 2016 could be the year they become generally available. This would enable anyone to find out what’s really on their plates, providing clear benefits not just to people looking to gain weight or eat healthier food, but people with dangerous allergies as well.  

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7) Humanoid Robots

One of the most promising companies developing robots is Boston Dynamics, acquired by Google in 2013. Since then, they only released teaser videos about animal-like robots and Petman, the humanoid robot. Many technologies they are working on seem to be at a stage where they are ready to become actual products, the first signs of which we’ll see in 2016.

8) 3D Bioprinting

Organovo has been in the focus because of 3D printing biomaterials for years. They announced successfully bioprinted liver tissues in 2014 and they seemed to be 4-6 years away from printing liver parts for transplantation. But first, these bioprinted livers could be finally used in the pharmaceutical industry to replace animal models when analyzing the toxicity of new drugs. If it goes through in 2016, I feel printing actual liver tissue for transplantation could become a commercial service within the next decade.

9) Internet of Health Things At Home

Last year, I released a concept art of a bathroom of the future. All the elements in that image from the smart toothbrush to the digital mirror were partially available in 2015. But an array of sensors will reach the general public in 2016 making IoT a reality in our homes. The long-term goal is to make these devices communicate and learn from each other. This way we would not have to analyze the data of the devices ourselves, but the device manufacturers could merge their findings and share a digestible report with us when there is something to take care of.

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10) Theranos – Thumbs Up Or Down

The end of 2015 saw Theranos embroiled in a scandal. The company claims to perform blood tests from one drop of blood in a transparently priced way. Concerns were raised by the Wall Street Journal about the validity of their claims, and we are waiting for Theranos to reveal the details of their technology.

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Besides these, the new Verily Life Sciences branch of Alphabet and the gene editing method CRISPR might have a big hit in 2016. We will see.

These technologies and trends will create value and have an impact on our lives and the practice of medicine in 2016. To keep an eye on them, subscribe to my newsletter!

Top 10 Science Fiction Technologies That Arrived in 2015

As a science fiction fanatic, it’s exciting to see sci-fi in real life. Technologies that we have only seen in movies before are now transforming our everyday lives. We’re connected 24/7, across the globe by smartphones; driverless cars navigate safely in traffic; and houses are printed out. The same is happening in healthcare, even if we don’t yet feel this when we go to the GP’s office. Here are the top 10 stories that made healthcare feel like sci-fi in 2015:

1) 3D Printed Cast

Scott Summit from 3D Systems might have been the first patient ever to have a shower with a 3D printed cast on his arm. It is personalized to his arm, really cheap and easily replaceable. A Spanish startup Exovite is turning it into a product anyone can buy. Their cast also includes electrodes to prevent muscles from atrophying under the cast.

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2) Seeing Veins Under the Skin

A new device called VeinVeiwer Vision2 uses near-infrared light to generate real-time imagery of a patient’s veins. Taking blood – without damaging blood vessels or causing excessive pain – won’t just depend on the skill and the experience of phlebotomists.

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3) Kidney Tissue Grown in Lab

Lab-grown kidney tissues were successfully transplanted into animals. This is the first step towards making biomaterials transplantable into patients. Steps such as this make me hope for a near-future without organ donor waiting lists.

4) Cheap Prosthetics For Kids

The E-Nable project brings cheap, 3D printed prosthetics to underdeveloped regions. The parts can be replaced easily and the whole prosthetic device can be assembled by anyone. A lot of regional E-Nable projects were launched in 2015.

5) Augmented Reality in Medical Education

Microsoft will release its augmented reality head-mounted device in 2016 but they published the first videos about how it could be used in medical education and the future of medical training. Imagine studying anatomy by literally looking at 3D body parts in front of your eyes. I wish I was a medical student now.

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6) Pacemaker Without Surgery

A new wireless pacemaker with a battery life of over two decades can be implanted without surgery and was found safe in a clinical study. It is implanted similarly to stents: through a vein in the leg.

7) Hacking The Pancreas

A cute story about a couple showed the merits of empowered patients and citizen scientists. The husband is an engineer and the wife has diabetes. As diabetic patients face very low or very high blood glucose levels during the night, an alarm system for either extreme would be very useful, but is currently not available. They created one with DIY methods. Their solution gained fame, and might be turned into a product soon.

8) The Digital Contact Lens

A Novartis chief announced that the digital contact lens would come out in 2016. The patent about the technology belongs to Google, but the pharmaceutical company teamed up with them to provide better treatments in diabetes by letting the lens measure blood glucose from tears.

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9) Microchip Under The Skin Monitors Vital Signs

A new medical device – in effect a small microchip – can be implanted under the skin and allows for precise, real-time medical monitoring. With this invention, any vital sign or health parameter could be measured and monitored. The patient wouldn’t have to keep anything in mind or actively partake in the process.

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10) Smart Bandages Detect Infections

Next generation bandages include microchips that measure basic health parameters and also detect infections in their early phase. This way bed sores could be prevented in time.

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Hearing these news made me really excited about the future. I’m sure 2016 will bring even more technologies straight out of science fiction medicine, so keep an eye out!

Subscribe to my newsletter to get updates and analyses about important trends shaping the future of medicine.

7 Videos About The Brave Future Of Medicine

When I receive questions about how healthcare and the practice of medicine will change due to the technological explosion we are living in, I like to be brave and assume that all stakeholders will move into the right directions if they are provided with guidance. As a proof, here are 7 videos about a brave future of medicine.

The Future Of Clinical Trials:

Let’s Design The Hospital Of The Future!

Our Home Will Be The Hospital Of The Future?

The Future of Patient Empowerment

Supercomputers Can Make Physicians Better! 

Virtual Reality Can Change The Hospital Experience

What We Can Print Out In 3D In Medicine

5 Things I Learnt On The Way To 50,000 Twitter Followers

I started using Twitter in 2007 and have been publishing thoughts, content and news about digital health since then almost on an hourly basis. I don’t care about numbers but when you reach a milestone, it keeps you thinking about what you have learnt on the way. Here are the 5 things I learnt while building a network of over 50,000 followers.

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1) The slower, the better.

I could have followed tens of thousands of people irrelevant to my topics and gain a few more followers myself. But using Twitter has always meant being in the bloodstream of information and for this I chose to take it slow. It took me over 8 years to build my network and I’m glad I chose the wise way. I know many of those people in person or we have been in contact for years. It builds trust and leads to professional relationships.

2) There are no limits

I travel around the world almost constantly, but I’m based in Budapest. What I learnt is there are no physical or geographical limitations when millions of people are connected to each other. My network is mostly US-based but I can talk to any medical professional, patient or innovator who has something to say about forming the future of medicine.

3) We solve problems together

A lot of issues related to healthcare pop up in the stream of Twitter every day and we try to get the best people to think about the possible solutions. Through Twitter, I managed to crowdsource a complicated diagnosis, I get answers for very specific questions and make new contacts around the world.

4) People respond more easily

I talk with people by e-mail, Skype, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and many more channels. In my experience, people tend to respond faster when approached on Twitter as they know the character limitation only lets them transmit the key part of the information without the garnish.

5) I get news on Twitter

Twitter is the best filter I have today to get the key news and announcements about digital health. Companies get in contact with me to test their products and wearable health trackers. Twitter sends me those tweets that received the biggest attention that day. If I still miss something, someone will send it to me personally.

Because of my Twitter network, I live in a limitless world full of opportunities and information.

Let’s tweet in touch!

20 Doctors You Should Be Following on Twitter

It’s always a pleasure to be included in such lists as I get to know others working in the field of digital health. Here is the full list and an excerpt:

Twitter can be the ideal platform for a physician to offer meaningful, relevant information to patients and colleagues. Getting started is the hardest part, but looking to others who have succeeded on Twitter can be a good way to draw inspiration. These 20 doctors are burning up their Twitter feeds and attracting massive followings—each in their unique way.

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Looking Back At Today’s Healthcare From The Future in 2050 – Video

A lot of people ask me about the future of medicine and healthcare. What’s coming next, what about the future of radiology, genomics or health sensors. They ask me to make really sharp predictions. But instead of this, let’s do something else now. Let’s look back from 2050, and see what today’s healthcare included, what barbaric elements played an important role in today’s healthcare in the 2010s.

Please let me know if I missed something.

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See more videos on The Medical Futurist Youtube Channel.

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