Data is the new oil. It is highly valuable, and it is everywhere, even if you're not aware of it. For example, it's there when you use social media. Sharing pictures on Facebook lets its facial recognition software peg you and your friends. Thanks to that software, now anywhere you visit that has installed cameras, your face can be identified and your actions recorded.
The big data revolution is advancing much faster than the ones before, and it carries both promises and perils for humanity.
It's there when you log into Twitter, posting one of the 230 million tweets per day, which up until last month were all archived by the Library of Congress and will be made public for research. These social media data can be used to predict your political affiliations, ethnicity, race, age, how close you are with your family and friends, your mental health, even when you are most likely to be grumpy or go to the gym. These data can also predict when you are apt to get sick and track how diseases are spreading.
In fact, tracking isn't limited to what you decide to share or public spaces anymore. Lab experiments show Comcast and other cable companies may soon be able to record and monitor movements in your house. They may also be able to read your lips and identify your visitors simply by assessing how Wi-Fi waves bounce off bodies and other objects in houses. In one study, MIT researchers used routers and sensors to monitor breathing and heart rates with 99% accuracy. Routers could soon be used for seemingly good things, like monitoring infant breathing and whether an older adult is about to take a big tumble. However, it may also enable unwanted and unparalleled levels of surveillance.
Some call the first digital pill a snitch pill, medication with a tattletale, and big brother in your belly.
Big data is there every time you pick up your smartphone, which can track your daily steps, where you go via geolocation, what time you wake up and go to bed, your punctuality, and even your overall health depending on which features you have enabled. Are you close with your mom; are you a sedentary couch potato; did you commit a murder (iPhone data was recently used in a German murder trial)? Smartphone-generated data can be used to label you---and not just you, your future and past generations too.
Smartphones are not the only "things" gathering data on you. Anything with an on and off switch can be connected to the internet and generate data. The new rule seems to be, if it can be, it will be, connected. Washing machines, coffee makers, medical appliances, cars, and even your luggage (yes, someone created a self-driving suitcase) can and are often generating data. "Smart" refrigerators can monitor your food levels and automatically create shopping lists and order food for you—while recording your alcohol consumption and whether you tend to be a healthy or junk food eater.
Even medicines can monitor behaviors. The first digital pill was just approved by the FDA last November to track whether patients take their medicines. It has a sensor that sends signals to a patient's smartphone, and others, when it encounters stomach acid. Some call it a snitch pill, medication with a tattletale, and big brother in your belly. Others see it as a major breakthrough to help patients remember to take their medications and to save payers millions of dollars.
Big data is there when you go shopping. Credit card and retail data can show whether you pay for a gym, if you are pregnant, have children, and your credit-worthiness. Uber and Lyft transactional data reveal what time you usually go to and leave work and who you regularly visit (Uber data has been used to catch cheating spouses).
Amazon now sells a bedroom camera to see your fashion choices and offer advice. It is marketing a more fashionable you, but it probably also wants the video feed showing your body measurements—they're "a newly prized currency," according to the Washington Post. They help retailers create more customized and better fitting clothes. Amazon also just partnered with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States by assets, to create an independent health-care company for their employees--raising privacy concerns as Amazon already owns so much data about us, from drones, devices, the AI of Alexa, and our viewing, eating, and other purchasing habits on Amazon Prime.
Data generation and storage can also be used to make the world better, safer and fairer.
Big data is arguably a new phenomenon; almost all the world's data (90%) were produced within the last 2 years or so. It is a result of the fusion of physical, digital, and biological technologies that together constitute the fourth industrial revolution, according to the World Economic Forum. Unlike the last three revolutions, involving the discoveries of steam power, electrical energy, and computers—this revolution is advancing much faster than the ones before and it carries both promises and perils for humanity.
Some people may want to opt out of all this tracking, reduce their digital footprint and stay "off the grid." However, it is worth noting that data generation and storage can be used for great things --- things that make the world better, safer and fairer. For example, sharing electronic health records and social media data can help scientists better track and understand diseases, develop new cures and therapies, and understand the safety and efficacy profiles of medicines and vaccines.
While full of promise, big data is not without its pitfalls. Data are often not interoperable or easily integrated. You can use your credit card practically anywhere in the world, but you cannot easily port your electronic health record to the doctor or hospital across the street, for example.
Data quality can also be poor. It is dependent on the person entering it. My electronic health record at one point said I was male, and I was pregnant at the time. No doctors or nurses seemed to notice. The problem is worse on a global level. For example, causes of death can be coded differently by country and village. Take HIV patients: they often develop secondary infections, like TB. Do you record the cause of death as TB or HIV? There isn't global consistency, and political pressure from patient groups can exert itself on death records. Often, each group wants to say they have the most deaths so they can fundraise more money.
Data can be biased. More than 80 percent of genomic data comes from Caucasians. Only 14 percent is from Asians and 3.5 percent is from African and Hispanic populations. Thus, when scientists use genomic data to develop drugs or lab tests, they may create biased products that work for only some demographics. Take type 2 diabetes blood tests; some do not work well for African Americans. One study estimates that 650,000 African Americans may have undiagnosed diabetes, because a common blood test doesn't work for them. Using biased data in medicine can be a matter of life and death. Moreover, if genomic medicine benefits only "a privileged few," the practice raises concerns about unequal access.
Large companies are selling data that originated from you and you are not sharing in the wealth.
We need to think carefully and be transparent about the values embedded in our data, data analytics (algorithms), and data applications. Numbers are never neutral. Algorithms are always embedded with subjective normative values--sometimes purposely, sometimes not. To address this problem, we need ethicists who can audit databanks and algorithms to identify embedded norms, values and biases and help ensure they are addressed or at least transparently disclosed. Additionally, we need to determine how to let people opt out of certain types of data collection and uses—and not just at the beginning of a system, but also at any point in their lifetimes. There is a right to be forgotten, which hasn't been adequately operationalized in today's data sphere.
What do you think happens to all of these data collected about us? The short answer is the public doesn't really know. A lot of it looks like what is in a medical record—i.e. height, weight, pregnancy status, age, mental health, pulse, blood pressure, and illness symptoms--- yet, it isn't protected by HIPPA, like your medical record information.
And it is being consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer big players. Large companies are selling data that originated from you and you are not sharing in the wealth.
A possible solution is to create an app, managed by a nonprofit or public benefit corporation, through which you could download and manage all the data collected about you. For example, you could download your credit card statements with all your purchasing habits, your Uber rides showing transit patterns, medical records, electric bills, every digital record you have and would like to download--into one application. You would then have the power to license pieces or the collection of your data to users for a small fee for one year at a time. Uses and users could be monitored and audited leveraging blockchain capabilities. After the year is up, you can withdraw access.
You could be your own data landlord. We could democratize big data and empower people to better control and manage the wealth of information collected about us. Why should only the big companies like Amazon and Apple profit off the new oil? Let's create an app so we can all manage our data wealth and maybe even become data barons—an app created by the people for the people.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."