The same way that it's harder to lose 100 pounds than it is to not gain 100 pounds, it's easier to stop a disease before it happens than to treat an illness once it's developed.
In Morris' dream scenario "everyone will be implanted with a sensor" ("…the same way most people are vaccinated") and the sensor will alert people to go to the doctor if something is awry.
Bio-engineers working on the next generation of diagnostic tools say today's technology, such as colonoscopies or mammograms, are reactionary; that is, they tell a person they are sick often when it's too late to reverse course. Surveillance medicine — such as implanted sensors — will detect disease at its onset, in real time.
What Is Possible?
Ever since the Human Genome Project — which concluded in 2003 after mapping the DNA sequence of all 30,000 human genes — modern medicine has shifted to "personalized medicine." Also called, "precision health," 21st-century doctors can in some cases assess a person's risk for specific diseases from his or her DNA. The information enables women with a BRCA gene mutation, for example, to undergo more frequent screenings for breast cancer or to pro-actively choose to remove their breasts, as a "just in case" measure.
But your DNA is not always enough to determine your risk of illness. Not all genetic mutations are harmful, for example, and people can get sick without a genetic cause, such as with an infection. Hence the need for a more "real-time" way to monitor health.
Aaron Morris, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, wants doctors to be able to predict illness with pinpoint accuracy well before symptoms show up. Working in the lab of Dr. Lonnie Shea, the team is building "a tiny diagnostic lab" that can live under a person's skin and monitor for illness, 24/7. Currently being tested in mice, the Michigan team's porous biodegradable implant becomes part of the body as "cells move right in," says Morris, allowing engineered tissue to be biopsied and analyzed for diseases. The information collected by the sensors will enable doctors to predict disease flareups, such as for cancer relapses, so that therapies can begin well before a person comes out of remission. The technology will also measure the effectiveness of those therapies in real time.
In Morris' dream scenario "everyone will be implanted with a sensor" ("…the same way most people are vaccinated") and the sensor will alert people to go to the doctor if something is awry.
While it may be four or five decades before Morris' sensor becomes mainstream, "the age of surveillance medicine is here," says Jamie Metzl, a technology and healthcare futurist who penned Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. "It will get more effective and sophisticated and less obtrusive over time," says Metzl.
Already, Google compiles public health data about disease hotspots by amalgamating individual searches for medical symptoms; pill technology can digitally track when and how much medication a patient takes; and, the Apple watch heart app can predict with 85-percent accuracy if an individual using the wrist device has Atrial Fibrulation (AFib) — a condition that causes stroke, blood clots and heart failure, and goes undiagnosed in 700,000 people each year in the U.S.
"We'll never be able to predict everything," says Metzl. "But we will always be able to predict and prevent more and more; that is the future of healthcare and medicine."
Morris believes that within ten years there will be surveillance tools that can predict if an individual has contracted the flu well before symptoms develop.
At City College of New York, Ryan Williams, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has built an implantable nano-sensor that works with a florescent wand to scope out if cancer cells are growing at the implant site. "Instead of having the ovary or breast removed, the patient could just have this [surveillance] device that can say 'hey we're monitoring for this' in real-time… [to] measure whether the cancer is maybe coming back,' as opposed to having biopsy tests or undergoing treatments or invasive procedures."
Not all surveillance technologies that are being developed need to be implanted. At Case Western, Colin Drummond, PhD, MBA, a data scientist and assistant department chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is building a "surroundable." He describes it as an Alexa-style surveillance system (he's named her Regina) that will "tell" the user, if a need arises for medication, how much to take and when.
Bioethical Red Flags
"Everyone should be extremely excited about our move toward what I call predictive and preventive health care and health," says Metzl. "We should also be worried about it. Because all of these technologies can be used well and they can [also] be abused." The concerns are many layered:
For years now, bioethicists have expressed concerns about employee-sponsored wellness programs that encourage fitness while also tracking employee health data."Getting access to your health data can change the way your employer thinks about your employability," says Keisha Ray, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Such access can lead to discriminatory practices against employees that are less fit. "Surveillance medicine only heightens those risks," says Ray.
Who owns the data?
Surveillance medicine may help "democratize healthcare" which could be a good thing, says Anita Ho, an associate professor in bioethics at both the University of California, San Francisco and at the University of British Columbia. It would enable easier access by patients to their health data, delivered to smart phones, for example, rather than waiting for a call from the doctor. But, she also wonders who will own the data collected and if that owner has the right to share it or sell it. "A direct-to-consumer device is where the lines get a little blurry," says Ho. Currently, health data collected by Apple Watch is owned by Apple. "So we have to ask bigger ethical questions in terms of what consent should be required" by users.
"Consumers of these products deserve some sort of assurance that using a product that will predict future needs won't in any way jeopardize their ability to access care for those needs," says Hastings Center bioethicist Carolyn Neuhaus. She is urging lawmakers to begin tackling policy issues created by surveillance medicine, now, well ahead of the technology becoming mainstream, not unlike GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 -- a federal law designed to prevent discrimination in health insurance on the basis of genetic information.
And, because not all Americans have insurance, Ho wants to know, who's going to pay for this technology and how much will it cost?
Trusting our guts
Some bioethicists are concerned that surveillance technology will reduce individuals to their "risk profiles," leaving health care systems to perceive them as nothing more than a "bundle of health and security risks." And further, in our quest to predict and prevent ailments, Neuhaus wonders if an over-reliance on data could damage the ability of future generations to trust their gut and tune into their own bodies?
It "sounds kind of hippy-dippy and feel-goodie," she admits. But in our culture of medicine where efficiency is highly valued, there's "a tendency to not value and appreciate what one feels inside of their own body … [because] it's easier to look at data than to listen to people's really messy stories of how they 'felt weird' the other day. It takes a lot less time to look at a sheet, to read out what the sensor implanted inside your body or planted around your house says."
Ho, too, worries about lost narratives. "For surveillance medicine to actually work we have to think about how we educate clinicians about the utility of these devices and how to how to interpret the data in the broader context of patients' lives."
While one of the goals of surveillance medicine is to cut down on doctor visits, Ho wonders if the technology will have the opposite effect. "People may be going to the doctor more for things that actually are benign and are really not of concern yet," says Ho. She is also concerned that surveillance tools could make healthcare almost "recreational" and underscores the importance of making sure that the goals of surveillance medicine are met before the technology is unleashed.
"We can't just assume that any of these technologies are inherently technologies of liberation."
AI doesn't fix existing healthcare problems
"Knowing that you're going to have a fall or going to relapse or have a disease isn't all that helpful if you have no access to the follow-up care and you can't afford it and you can't afford the prescription medication that's going to ward off the onset," says Neuhaus. "It may still be worth knowing … but we can't fool ourselves into thinking that this technology is going to reshape medicine in America if we don't pay attention to … the infrastructure that we don't currently have."
How surveillances devices are tested before being approved for human use is a major concern for Ho. In recent years, alerts have been raised about the homogeneity of study group participants — too white and too male. Ho wonders if the devices will be able to "accurately predict the disease progression for people whose data has not been used in developing the technology?" COVID-19 has killed Black people at a rate 2.5 time greater than white people, for example, and new, virtual clinical research is focused on recruiting more people of color.
The Biggest Question
"We can't just assume that any of these technologies are inherently technologies of liberation," says Metzl.
Especially because we haven't yet asked the 64-thousand dollar question: Would patients even want to know?
Jenny Ahlstrom is an IT professional who was diagnosed at 43 with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that typically attacks people in their late 60s and 70s and for which there is no cure. She believes that most people won't want to know about their declining health in real time. People like to live "optimistically in denial most of the time. If they don't have a problem, they don't want to really think they have a problem until they have [it]," especially when there is no cure. "Psychologically? That would be hard to know."
Ahlstrom says there's also the issue of trust, something she experienced first-hand when she launched her non-profit, HealthTree, a crowdsourcing tool to help myeloma patients "find their genetic twin" and learn what therapies may or may not work. "People want to share their story, not their data," says Ahlstrom. "We have been so conditioned as a nation to believe that our medical data is so valuable."
Metzl acknowledges that adoption of new technologies will be uneven. But he also believes that "over time, it will be abundantly clear that it's much, much cheaper to predict and prevent disease than it is to treat disease once it's already emerged."
Beyond cost, the tremendous potential of these technologies to help us live healthier and longer lives is a game-changer, he says, as long as we find ways "to ultimately navigate this terrain and put systems in place ... to minimize any potential harms."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby