Urinary tract infections aren't life-threatening, but they can be excruciatingly painful and debilitating.
"Overnight, I'd be gripped by this searing pain and I can barely walk," says Ling Koh, a Los Angeles-based bioengineer. But short of going to the ER or urgent care, she'd have to suffer for a few days until she could get in to see her family doctor for an antibiotic prescription.
Smartphones are now able to do on-the-spot diagnostic tests that were previously only able to be performed in a lab.
No longer. Koh, who works for Scanwell Health, was instrumental in the development of the company's smartphone app that is FDA-cleared for urinary tract infection screening. It allows someone to test urine at home using a paper test strip — the same one used by doctors in ERs and labs. The phone app reads a scan card from the test kit that can analyze what's on the strip and then connect the patient to a physician who can make a virtual diagnosis.
Test strips cost $15 for a three-pack and consultation with a doc is about the same as an average co-pay -- $25, and the app matches the quality of clinical laboratory tests, according to the company. Right now, you can get a referral to a telehealth visit with a doctor in California and get a prescription. A national rollout is in the works within the next couple of months.
"It's so easy to use them at home and eliminate the inefficiencies in the process," says Koh. "A telemedicine doctor can look at the test results and prescribe directly to the pharmacy instead of women waiting at home, miserable, and crying in the bathtub."
Scanwell is now involved in an ongoing National Institutes of Health- sponsored study of chronic kidney disease to test a version of the app to identify patients who have the disease, which affects more than 30 million Americans. "Because kidney disease has virtually no symptoms, by the time people realize they're sick, their illness is advanced and they're ready for dialysis," says Koh. "If we can catch it sooner, early intervention can help them avoid kidney failure."
Smartphones have changed society — and now they may change medical care, too. Thanks to the incredible processing capabilities of our smartphones, which come equipped with a camera, access to the internet and are thousands of times faster than the 1960s era NASA computers that ran the Apollo Moon Mission, these pocket-sized powerhouses have become an invaluable tool for managing our health and are even able to do on-the-spot diagnostic tests that were previously only able to be performed in a lab.
This shift to in-home testing is the wave of the future, promising to ease some of the medical care bottlenecks in which patients can have two- to three-week waits to see their family doctors and lift some of the burdens on overworked physicians.
"This is really the democratization of medicine because a lot of the things we used to rely on doctors, hospitals, or labs to do we'll be able to do ourselves," says Dr. Eric Topol, an eminent cardiologist and digital health pioneer at the Scripps Clinic and Research Institute in La Jolla.
But troubling questions remain. Aside from the obvious convenience, are these tests truly as accurate as ones in a doctor's office? And with all this medical information stored and collected by smartphones, will privacy be sacrificed? Will friends, family members, and employers suddenly have access to personal medical information we'd rather keep to ourselves?
The range of what these DIY health care apps can do is mind-boggling, and even more complex tests are on the way.
"I'm really worried about that because we've let our guard down," says Topol. "Data stored on servers is a target for cyber thieves — and data is being breached, hacked, brokered, and sold, and we're complacent."
Still, the apps have come a long way since 2011 when Topol whipped out an experimental smartphone electro-cardiogram that he had been testing on his patients when a fellow passenger on a flight from Washington D.C. was seized with severe chest pains. At 35,000 feet in the air, the app, which uses fingertip sensors to detect heart rate, showed the man was having a heart attack. After an emergency landing, the passenger was rushed to the closest hospital and survived. These days, even the Apple Watch has an FDA-approved app that can monitor your electro-cardiogram readings.
The range of what these DIY health care apps can do is mind-boggling, and even more complex tests are on the way. Phone apps can now monitor sleep quality to detect sleep apnea, blood pressure, weight and temperature. In the future, rapid diagnostic tests for infectious diseases, like flu, Dengue or Zika, and urinalysis will become common.
"There is virtually no limit to the kinds of testing that can be done using a smartphone," says Dr. John Halamka, Executive Director of the Health Technology Exploration Center at Beth Israel Lahey Health. "No one wants to drive to a clinician's office or lab if that same quality testing can be achieved at a lower cost without leaving home."
SkinVision's skin cancer screening tool, for instance, can tell if a suspicious mole is cancerous. Users take three photos, which are then run through the app's algorithm that compares their lesions with more than three million pictures, evaluating such elements as asymmetry, color, and shape, and spits out an assessment within thirty seconds. A team of in-house experts provide a review regardless of whether the mole is high or low risk, and the app encourages users to see their doctors. The Dutch-based company's app has been used by more than a million people globally in the EU, and in New Zealand and Australia, where skin cancer is rampant and early detection can save lives. The company has plans to enter the U.S. market, according to a spokesperson.
Apps like Instant Heart Rate analyze blood flow, which can indicate whether your heart is functioning normally, while uChek examines urine samples for up to 10 markers for conditions like diabetes and urinary tract infections. Some behavioral apps even have sensors that can spot suicide risks if users are less active, indicating they may be suffering from a bout of the blues.
Even more complex tests are in the research pipeline. Apps like ResAppDX could eventually replace x-rays, CT scans, and blood tests in diagnosing severe respiratory infections in kids, while an EU-funded project called i-Prognosis can track a variety of clues — voice changes, facial expressions, hand steadiness — that indicate the onset of Parkinson's disease.
These hand-held testing devices can be especially helpful in developing countries, and there are pilot programs to use smartphone technology to diagnose malaria and HIV infections in remote outposts in Africa.
"In a lot of these places, there's no infrastructure but everyone has a smartphone," says Scanwell's Koh. "We need to leverage the smartphone in a clinically relevant way."
"Patients just blindly accept the end user agreements without understanding the implications."
Users need to be vigilant, too. "Patients just blindly accept the end user agreements without understanding the implications," says Hamalka, who is also the Chief Information Officer and Dean for Technology at Harvard Medical School.
And quality control is an issue. Right now, the diagnostic tools currently available have been vetted by the FDA, and overseas companies like Skin Vision have been scrutinized by the U.K.'s National Health Service and the EU. But the danger is that a lot of apps are going to be popping up soon that haven't been properly tested, due to loopholes in the regulations.
"All we want," says Topol, "are rigorous studies to make sure what consumers are using is validated."
[Correction, August 19th, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the specifics of SkinVision's service. A team of in-house experts reviews users' submissions, not in-house dermatologists, and the service is not free.]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.