Bioprinted ovaries to cure infertility and bioprinted kidneys for those on dialysis, waiting desperately for a kidney transplant – those were just two of the almost sci-fi scenarios conjured up by futurist Bruce McCabe in his keynote speech at the Queensland eHealth Expo in Brisbane earlier this month, along with using ever-present Wi-Fi networks for patient monitoring.
Some 1,500 delegates heard McCabe describe these and other cutting-edge health research projects. Far from being science fiction, McCabe said these developments were only a few years from being achievable, although a few more years would be required for them to attain the necessary approvals to be used clinically.
“Just over a year ago a researcher at the Feinberg Institute in Chicago succeeded in bioprinting ovaries for mice that were infertile,” McCabe said.
Putting up an image of nest full of baby mice, he announced: “This is the second generation of pups. Now [the researcher] wants to do that for women who have had cancer treatments, and restore their fertility in the same way.”
Nanobots to aid fertility
In a totally different approach to supporting reproduction, McCabe talked of nano-robots. Putting up another image, he said: “Here’s a nanorobot, about 10 nanometres. It’s assisting a single sperm cell with its motility problems.
As for bioprinted kidneys, “It’s an absolute certainty,” McCabe said. “Timeframes are harder. But I would say we will see the first transplants into mammals very soon. I wouldn't be surprised to see the first human one, in trial form, in five years.
You would have to give it another 10 years to get through all the regulatory approvals process. So 15 years from now? Absolutely.”
Grow your own stem cells
Somewhat less ambitious initiatives to create new body parts, not from printing but from the body’s own stem cells, are already bearing fruit, according to McCabe.
He described a remedy for deafness already in clinical trials with several hundred patients. “By reactivating the stem cell capabilities that lie dormant within our cochleas they are building new hairs.” he said. “You apply cream, and it re-activates your stem cells.”
Artificial intelligence and machine learning also featured prominently in McCabe’s presentation, particularly the use of machine learning to perform diagnoses on visual data.
“Everywhere we see data, we can apply machine learning to [analyse it] better,” he said. His examples included a machine learning tool that can be trained on thousands of images of early stage lung tumours to the point where “it can be better than any radiologist alive at spotting early stage tumours.”
Such achievements, he said were now passé. “[Today] we're doing the same thing with live video of heart MRI scans, picking up an abnormality in 15 seconds from live video with machine learning. It does better than any cardiologist alive.”
What you can do with Wi-Fi
Perhaps the most impressive application of machine learning highlighted by McCabe was what can be learnt about people simply by analysing the signals reflected from their bodies by — ubiquitous — WiFi networks: “just by tracking people's movements from the W-Fi waves bouncing around the room they are in.”
McCabe explained: “With machine learning software you can watch the patterns of the waves and you can not only see where people are, of if they are about to fall, you can also monitor all day every day their breathing and their heart rate.
“You can track through walls. And you can do that with no extra hardware, just software. That offers wonderful opportunities to rethink the way we do patient tracking inside a facility.”
Beware of Babylon
But the tech innovation that has the potential to have the most immediate, and a very significant, impact on healthcare in Australia is Babylon, if it were to arrive here from the UK.
McCabe’s request for a show of hands: “Who’s heard of Babylon?” suggested awareness in Australia is low.
McCabe described Babylon as “a chatbot that does your diagnosis … WebMD on steroids, with the machine learning behind it.”
Babylon’s goal is ambitious in the extreme: “To put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth,” according to its website.
By combining “the ever-growing power of AI” with “the best medical expertise of humans,” Babylon is promising to deliver “unparalleled access to healthcare, including personalised health assessments, treatment advice and face-to-face appointments with a doctor 24/7.”
McCabe told the audience: “It gets better every time you speak to it. … It's controversial, because the founders are fairly flamboyant, and they've been saying things like ‘this is better than any UK doctor out there at diagnosing anything.’
“… People love it. Tens of thousands of people in England have adopted it. And it is changing the structure of the healthcare system because it is diverting finances between clinics that are being referred patients through this app.”
He advised his listeners: “Go and have a look, because you're going to be seeing something like this soon.”