In this week’s feature, we are going to take a brief look at a category within biotechnology through the lenses of a familiar tech name, a small cap biotech firm, and a new discovery out of King’s College in London. In the process, we’ll not only obtain a glimpse of what lies in store in the future, we’ll also see some of the possible ways of utilizing this new technology.
The category is that of mHealth, which stands for mobile health. The name basically means what you might suspect: a range of health applications that can be used mobile, whether on specific gadgets or your own smartphone. The idea of being able to gauge, in some ways, your own health on your smartphone, and to have a knowledgeable relationship about what you know with your doctor, is a strong driver behind the idea of personalized medicine. Health is, after all, extremely personal. No two individuals have the same DNA. One of the goals of mHealth applications is to embrace this personalized nature of health, while also connecting health to a strong network of doctors, hospitals, and other health institutions.
Having you taken your medicine today? COPD and mHealth
One example of a highly-integrated mHealth app comes from LifeMap Solutions, which is a subsidiary of the small-cap biotech firm BioTime, Inc. (BTX). They have created and launched an application called the COPD Navigator, designed to monitor in real time patients of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. On the surface, it’s surprisingly like any other app—it can even be purchased from Apple’s App Store. The key, however, is in the possibility of these apps to connect patients and doctors. Imagine a clinic having access to real-time data of its patients with COPD, able to monitor their chronic illness, with the ability to advise them or intervene in real time in case of an attack or emergency. Information from the patients is “translated,” in a sense, to information that doctors and clinics can use. This cuts down on medical expenses.
For individuals, the COPD Navigator works differently. Most patients, of course, can’t diagnose piles of data. Instead, the COPD Navigator gives them tools to help manage their condition. The app can give them information about the weather or the air quality on a given day. It might remind them to take their medication that day, or give them assists in recognizing whether the symptoms they’re currently experiences require them to seek immediate medical attention.
Connecting patients to doctors and to instant health information is a vital tool, especially for chronic diseases such as COPD that may require daily management. Up until recently, however, such detailed mHealth apps as the COPD Navigator have been relegated to specific areas and small firms. That might be about to change.
Samsung: Beyond the Fitness Watch
When you think of mobile health and devices, the first thing that probably pops into your head is the sight of a fitness heart rate tracker. There are plenty of smart watches and other bands that collect this basic, entry-level information. This year, however, Samsung Electronics (005930 KRX) is hoping to take the multifunctional mHealth device to the next level. While not at the level of sophistication of specifically-designed aps or devices, the Samsung device is a good example of increasing interest in mHealth among the major tech competitors.
Rather than being limited to heart-rate tracking like most wearable devices, the Samsung Bio-Processor is a chip that examines five different signals according to news reports: “body fat, skeletal muscle mass, heart rate and rhythm, skin temperature, and stress.” While getting information on these body functions is interesting on its own, the more significant breakthroughs might come if this chip and its monitoring sensors are combined with other devices by other manufacturers. Combining more specific applications with a chip that can track information relevant to those apps will give users more targeted and more useful information on their health.
What your “molecular fingerprint” can tell you about your next shot
The end goal of mHealth, personalized health or whatever moniker we choose to give this new direction in biotech is to create a system of individualized healthcare. Imagine patients integrated with doctors, informed about their own health, and treated in a way that fits their own specific needs—perhaps even their own specific DNA.
We’ll close with an example that ties into this theme of personalized health and shows just how it important it is that we move away from any one-size-fits-all model of healthcare. According to The Scientist, researchers out of King’s College in London have successfully identified a “molecular fingerprint” that can tell doctors which people are more likely to have negative side effects from the flu shot.
You might know somehow who, after taking the seasonal flu vaccine, get aches, pains, or feelings of feverishness. You’ve probably seen commercial after commercial listing side effects for which you should immediately stop taking a certain medication. Many times, it’s impossible to know who will suffer the adverse effects prior to taking the medicine.
The researchers in this study took a look at the “gene-expression pattern” in people who responded poorly to the flu vaccine. “Gene expression” basically describes how our genes are different. For example, we all have genes that determine eye color; how we express those genes determines which eye color we have. While they are careful to say that this isn’t yet a “smoking gun,” they say there is strong evidence that certain gene expressions that they can identify may signal that a person will have an adverse reaction to the flu shot.
This type of discovery, if verified, can work both ways. Not only can we try to identify in the future gene expression patterns that might lead to someone having an adverse reaction, we might also be able to “predict immune responses” to improve our vaccines, reducing side effects. Adrian Hayday of King’s College, one of the study’s co-authors, even points to the use of this technology in immunotherapy (which we talked about here at BTA right before the New Year) to “understand the secrets of good strong responses versus weak ones, or those rich with adverse events.”
Personalized health may not be close, but it’s getting closer. Between mHealth apps, better monitoring devices, and an improved understanding of how our DNA might predict our reactions to certain vaccines, 2016 is taking a big leap forward in bringing personalized health more into the public eye.