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.]
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.