tech

A Stomach Implant Saved Me. When Your Organs Fail, You Could Become a Cyborg, Too

Ordinary people are living better with chronic conditions thanks to a recent explosion of developments in medical implants.

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Beware, cyborgs walk among us. They’re mostly indistinguishable from regular humans and are infiltrating every nook and cranny of society. For full disclosure, I’m one myself. No, we’re not deadly intergalactic conquerors like the Borg race of Star Trek fame, just ordinary people living better with chronic conditions thanks to medical implants.

In recent years there has been an explosion of developments in implantable devices that merge multiple technologies into gadgets that work in concert with human physiology for the treatment of serious diseases. Pacemakers for the heart are the best-known implants, as well as other cardiac devices like LVADs (left-ventricular assist devices) and implanted defibrillators. Next-generation devices address an array of organ failures, and many are intended as permanent. The driving need behind this technology: a critical, persistent shortage of implantable biological organs.

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Eve Herold

Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.

Scientists Want to Make Robots with Genomes that Help Grow their Minds

Giving robots self-awareness as they move through space - and maybe even providing them with gene-like methods for storing rules of behavior - could be important steps toward creating more intelligent machines.

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One day in recent past, scientists at Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab set up a robotic arm inside a circle of five streaming video cameras and let the robot watch itself move, turn and twist. For about three hours the robot did exactly that—it looked at itself this way and that, like toddlers exploring themselves in a room full of mirrors. By the time the robot stopped, its internal neural network finished learning the relationship between the robot’s motor actions and the volume it occupied in its environment. In other words, the robot built a spatial self-awareness, just like humans do. “We trained its deep neural network to understand how it moved in space,” says Boyuan Chen, one of the scientists who worked on it.

For decades robots have been doing helpful tasks that are too hard, too dangerous, or physically impossible for humans to carry out themselves. Robots are ultimately superior to humans in complex calculations, following rules to a tee and repeating the same steps perfectly. But even the biggest successes for human-robot collaborations—those in manufacturing and automotive industries—still require separating the two for safety reasons. Hardwired for a limited set of tasks, industrial robots don't have the intelligence to know where their robo-parts are in space, how fast they’re moving and when they can endanger a human.

Over the past decade or so, humans have begun to expect more from robots. Engineers have been building smarter versions that can avoid obstacles, follow voice commands, respond to human speech and make simple decisions. Some of them proved invaluable in many natural and man-made disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, nuclear accidents and chemical spills. These disaster recovery robots helped clean up dangerous chemicals, looked for survivors in crumbled buildings, and ventured into radioactive areas to assess damage.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
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A New Web Could be Coming. Will It Improve Human Health?

A number of emerging technologies are in the mix to define Web3, the next era of the digital age. They could contribute to our overall health and well-being.

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

The Web has provided numerous benefits over the years, but users have also experienced issues related to privacy, cybersecurity, income inequality, and addiction which negatively impact their quality of life. In important ways, the Web has yet to meet its potential to support human health.

Now, engineers are in the process of developing a new version of the Web, called Web3, which would seek to address the Web’s current shortcomings through a mix of new technologies.

It could also create new problems. Industrial revolutions, including new versions of the Web, have trade-offs. While many activists tend to focus on the negative aspects of Web3 technologies, they overlook some of the potential benefits to health and the environment that aren’t as easily quantifiable such as less stressful lives, fewer hours required for work, and a higher standard of living. What emerging technologies are in the mix to define the new era of the digital age, and how will they contribute to our overall health and well-being?

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Randall Mayes
Randall Mayes is a technology analyst, author, futurist (technology forecaster), and instructor of emerging technologies in Duke University’s OLLI program.
Should We Use Technologies to Enhance Morality?

Should we welcome biomedical technologies that could enhance our ability to tell right from wrong and improve behaviors that are considered immoral such as dishonesty, prejudice and antisocial aggression?

Photo by Asa Rodger on Unsplash

Our moral ‘hardware’ evolved over 100,000 years ago while humans were still scratching the savannah. The perils we encountered back then were radically different from those that confront us now. To survive and flourish in the face of complex future challenges our archaic operating systems might need an upgrade – in non-traditional ways.

Morality refers to standards of right and wrong when it comes to our beliefs, behaviors, and intentions. Broadly, moral enhancement is the use of biomedical technology to improve moral functioning. This could include augmenting empathy, altruism, or moral reasoning, or curbing antisocial traits like outgroup bias and aggression.

The claims related to moral enhancement are grand and polarizing: it’s been both tendered as a solution to humanity’s existential crises and bluntly dismissed as an armchair hypothesis. So, does the concept have any purchase? The answer leans heavily on our definition and expectations.

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Cohen Marcus Lionel Brown
Cohen Marcus Lionel Brown teaches and researches ethics and applied philosophy at UOW in Greater Sydney, Australia. Specifically, he works on questions in neuroethics, moral psychology, aggression studies, and human enhancement. He is a current member of the Australasian Association of Philosophy Postgraduate Committee, Sydney Health Ethics Network, and the International Society for Research on Aggression. Cohen also works as a judge of the International Ethics Olympiad, and volunteers with the not-for-profit organization Primary Ethics. Find him on Twitter @CohenMarcusLio1
A Tool for Disease Detection Is Right Under Our Noses

In March, researchers published a review that lists which organic chemicals match up with certain diseases and biomarkers in the skin, saliva and urine. It’s an important step in creating a robot nose that can reliably detect diseases.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

The doctor will sniff you now? Well, not on his or her own, but with a device that functions like a superhuman nose. You’ll exhale into a breathalyzer, or a sensor will collect “scent data” from a quick pass over your urine or blood sample. Then, AI software combs through an olfactory database to find patterns in the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) you secreted that match those associated with thousands of VOC disease biomarkers that have been identified and cataloged.

No further biopsy, imaging test or procedures necessary for the diagnosis. According to some scientists, this is how diseases will be detected in the coming years.

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Eve Glicksman
Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, DC, area following a long career in Philadelphia. She writes for the health and science section of The Washington Post along with a mix of stories for other media and associations on trends, culture, psychology, lifestyle, business and travel. Previously, she served as a managing editor for UnitedHealth Group and the Association for American Medical Colleges. To see more of her work, visit eveglicksman.com. 
Our devices are changing us

Tech-related injuries are becoming more common as many people depend on - and often develop addictions for - smart phones and computers.

In the 1990s, a mysterious virus spread throughout the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Lab—or that’s what the scientists who worked there thought. More of them rubbed their aching forearms and massaged their cricked necks as new computers were introduced to the AI Lab on a floor-by-floor basis. They realized their musculoskeletal issues coincided with the arrival of these new computers—some of which were mounted high up on lab benches in awkward positions—and the hours spent typing on them.

Today, these injuries have become more common in a society awash with smart devices, sleek computers, and other gadgets. And we don’t just get hurt from typing on desktop computers; we’re massaging our sore wrists from hours of texting and Facetiming on phones, especially as they get bigger in size.

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Hanna Webster
Hanna Webster is a freelance science writer based in San Diego, California. She received a Bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and creative writing in 2018 from Western Washington University, and is now a graduate student in the MA Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. She writes stories about neuroscience, biology, and public health. Her essays and articles have appeared in Jeopardy Magazine and Leafly. When Hanna is not writing, she enjoys consuming other art forms, such as photography, poetry, creative nonfiction, and live music
They received retinal implants to restore their vision. Then the company turned its back on them.

A company called Second Sight made an implant that partially restored vision to people who'd been blind for decades. But when Second Sight pivoted, it stopped servicing its product, leaving many in the dark.

The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.

“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”

Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.

Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.

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Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.
Why you should (virtually) care

Virtual-first care, or V1C, could increase the quality of healthcare and make it more patient-centric by letting patients combine in-person visits with virtual options such as video for seeing their care providers.

(© Elnur/Fotolia)

As the pandemic turns endemic, healthcare providers have been eagerly urging patients to return to their offices to enjoy the benefits of in-person care.

But wait.

The last two years have forced all sorts of organizations to be nimble, adaptable and creative in how they work, and this includes healthcare providers’ efforts to maintain continuity of care under the most challenging of conditions. So before we go back to “business as usual,” don’t we owe it to those providers and ourselves to admit that business as usual did not work for most of the people the industry exists to help? If we’re going to embrace yet another period of change – periods that don’t happen often in our complex industry – shouldn’t we first stop and ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve?

Certainly, COVID has shown that telehealth can be an invaluable tool, particularly for patients in rural and underserved communities that lack access to specialty care. It’s also become clear that many – though not all – healthcare encounters can be effectively conducted from afar. That said, the telehealth tactics that filled the gap during the pandemic were largely stitched together substitutes for existing visit-based workflows: with offices closed, patients scheduled video visits for help managing the side effects of their blood pressure medications or to see their endocrinologist for a quarterly check-in. Anyone whose children slogged through the last year or two of remote learning can tell you that simply virtualizing existing processes doesn’t necessarily improve the experience or the outcomes!

But what if our approach to post-pandemic healthcare came from a patient-driven perspective? We have a fleeting opportunity to advance a care model centered on convenient and equitable access that first prioritizes good outcomes, then selects approaches to care – and locations – tailored to each patient. Using the example of education, imagine how effective it would be if each student, regardless of their school district and aptitude, received such individualized attention.

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Jennifer C. Goldsack & Linette Demers
Jennifer C. Goldsack co-founded and serves as the CEO of the Digital Medicine Society (DiMe), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing digital medicine to optimize human health. Jennifer’s research focuses on applied approaches to the safe, effective, and equitable use of digital technologies to improve health, healthcare, and health research. She is a member of the Roundtable on Genomics and Precision Health at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and serves on the World Economic Forum Global Leadership Council on mental health. Previously, Jennifer spent several years at the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI), a public-private partnership co-founded by Duke University and the FDA. There, she led development and implementation of several projects within CTTI’s Digital Program and was the operational co-lead on the first randomized clinical trial using FDA’s Sentinel System. Jennifer spent five years working in research at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, first in Outcomes Research in the Department of Surgery and later in the Department of Medicine. More recently, she helped launch the Value Institute, a pragmatic research and innovation center embedded in a large academic medical center in Delaware. Jennifer earned her master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Oxford, England, her masters in the history and sociology of medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, and her MBA from the George Washington University. Additionally, she is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and a Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality. Jennifer is a retired athlete, formerly a Pan American Games Champion, Olympian, and World Championship silver medalist. ___________________________________________________________________________ Linette Demers leads IMPACT, a DiMe initiative dedicated to advancing high value, evidence-based virtual first care for patients, healthcare providers, and payers. Previously, Linette was responsible for commercialization, entrepreneurship and capital formation programs at Life Science Washington and WINGS Angels. Her 20 year career in healthcare spans strategy, business development, and population health management in oncology care at Fred Hutch, and management consulting at Sg2. Linette holds a PhD in Chemistry and a BS in Health Economics and Outcomes Research.