Will COVID-19 Pave the Way For Home-Based Precision Medicine?
It looks like an ordinary toilet but it is anything but. The "smart toilet" is the diagnostic tool of the future, equipped with cameras that take snapshots of the users and their waste, motion sensors to analyze what's inside the urine and stool samples, and software that automatically sends data to a secure, cloud-based system that can be easily accessed by your family doctor.
"It's a way of doing community surveillance. If there is a second wave of infections in the future, we'll know right away."
Using urine "dipstick tests" similar to the home pregnancy strips, the smart toilet can detect certain proteins, immune system biomarkers and blood cells that indicate the presence of such diseases as infections, bladder cancer, and kidney failure.
The rationale behind this invention is that some of the best ways of detecting what's going on in our bodies is by analyzing the substances we excrete every day, our sweat, urine, saliva and yes, our feces. Instead of getting sporadic snapshots from doctor's visits once or twice a year, the smart toilet provides continuous monitoring of our health 24/7, so we can catch the tell-tale molecular signature of illnesses at their earliest and most treatable stages. A brainchild of Stanford University researchers, they're now working to add a COVID-19 detection component to their suite of technologies—corona virus particles can be spotted in stool samples—and hope to have the system available within the year.
"We can connect the toilet system to cell phones so we'll know the results within 30 minutes," says Seung-min Park, a lead investigator on the research team that devised this technology and a senior research scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "The beauty of this technology is that it can continuously monitor even after this pandemic is over. It's a way of doing community surveillance. If there is a second wave of infections in the future, we'll know right away."
Experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the widespread acceptance of in-home diagnostic tools such as this. "Shock events" like pandemics can be catalysts for sweeping changes in society, history shows us. The Black Death marked the end of feudalism and ushered in the Renaissance while the aftershocks of the Great Depression and two world wars in the 20th century led to the social safety net of the New Deal and NATO and the European Union. COVID-19 could fundamentally alter the way we deliver healthcare, abandoning the outdated 20th century brick and mortar fee-for-service model in favor of digital medicine. At-home diagnostics may be the leading edge of this seismic shift and the pandemic could accelerate the product innovations that allow for home-based medical screening.
"That's the silver lining to this devastation," says Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. As an interventional cardiologist, Saxon has spent her career devising and refining the implantable and wearable wireless devices that are used to treat and diagnose heart conditions and prevent sudden death. "This will open up innovation—research has been stymied by a lack of imagination and marriage to an antiquated model," she adds. "There are already signs this is happening—relaxing state laws about licensure, allowing physicians to deliver health care in non-traditional ways. That's a real sea change and will completely democratize medical information and diagnostic testing."
Ironically, diagnostics have long been a step-child of modern medicine, even though accurate and timely diagnostics play a crucial role in disease prevention, detection and management. "The delivery of health care has proceeded for decades with a blind spot: diagnostic errors—inaccurate or delayed diagnoses—persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients," according to a 2015 National Academy of Medicine report. That same report found as many as one out of five adverse events in the hospital result from these errors and they contribute to 10 percent of all patient deaths.
The pandemic should alter the diagnostic landscape. We already have a wealth of wearable and implantable devices, like glucose sensors to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics, Apple's smart watch, electrocardiogram devices that can detect heart arrythmias, and heart pacemakers.
The Food and Drug Administration is working closely with in-home test developers to make accurate COVID-19 diagnostic tools readily available and has so far greenlighted three at-home collection test kits. Two, LabCorp's and Everlywell's, use nasal swabs to take samples. The third one is a spit test, using saliva samples, that was devised by a Rutgers University laboratory in partnership with Spectrum Solutions and Accurate Diagnostic Labs.
The only way to safely reopen is through large scale testing, but hospitals and doctors' offices are no longer the safest places.
In fact, DIY diagnostic company Everlywell, an Austin, Texas- based digital health company, already offers more than 30 at-home kits for everything from fertility to food sensitivity tests. Typically, consumers collect a saliva or finger-prick blood sample, dispatch it in a pre-paid shipping envelope to a laboratory, and a physician will review the results and send a report to consumers' smartphones.
Thanks to advances in technology, samples taken at home can now be preserved long enough to arrive intact at diagnostic laboratories. The key is showing the agency "transport and shipping don't change or interfere with the integrity of the samples," says Dr. Frank Ong, Everlywell's chief medical and scientific officer.
Ong is keenly aware of the importance of saturation testing because of the lessons learned by colleagues fighting the SARS pandemic in his family's native Taiwan in 2003. "In the beginning, doctors didn't know what they were dealing with and didn't protect themselves adequately," he says. "But over two years, they learned the hard way that there needs to be enough testing, contact tracing of those who have been exposed, and isolation of people who test positive. The value of at-home testing is that it can be done on the kind of broad basis that needs to happen for our country to get back to work."
Because of the pandemic, new policies have removed some of the barriers that impeded the widespread adoption of home-based diagnostics and telemedicine. Physicians can now practice across state lines, get reimbursed for telemedicine visits and use FaceTime to communicate with their patients, which had long been considered taboo because of privacy issues. Doctors and patients are becoming more comfortable and realizing the convenience and benefits of being able to do these things virtually.
Added to this, the only way to safely reopen for business without triggering a second and perhaps even more deadly wave of sickness is through large-scale testing, but hospitals and doctors' offices are no longer the safest places. "We don't want people sitting in a waiting room who later find out they're positive, and potentially infected everyone, including doctors and nurses," says Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician in Washington, DC who served as a policy director in the Obama White House.
In-home testing avoids the risks of direct exposure to the virus for both patients and health care professionals, who can dispense with cumbersome protective gear to take samples, and also enables people without reliable transportation or child-care to learn their status. "At home testing can be a critical component of our country's overall testing strategy," says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade Health and on the faculty of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. "Once we're back at work, we need to be much more targeted, and have much more access to data and controlling those outbreaks as tightly as possible. The best way to do that is by leapfrogging clinics and being able to deliver tests at home for people who are disenfranchised by the current system."
In the not-too-distant future, in-home diagnostics could be a key component of precision medicine, which is customized care tailored specifically to each patient's individual needs. Like Stanford's smart toilet prototype, these ongoing surveillance tools will gather health data, ranging from exposures to toxins and pollutions in the environment to biochemical activity, like rising blood pressure, signs of inflammation, failing kidneys or tiny cancerous tumors, and provide continuous real-time information.
"These can be deeply personalized and enabled by smart phones, sensors and artificial intelligence," says USC's Leslie Saxon. "We'll be seeing the floodgates opening to patients accessing medical services through the same devices that they access other things, and leveraging these tools for our health and to fine tune disease management in a model of care that is digitally enabled."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”