Predicting the future of health care is a tricky business. At any point, there could be a big breakthrough in, say, cancer research, throwing the whole thing off. Or a new technology could come along in another sector, disrupting health care just as a side effect (much like the smartphone has already done). FutureMed, a weeklong program from Singularity University for doctors and others in the health care industry, looks at the ways that technology could change health care in the coming years. I spent a day at Singularity’s classroom (located at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley) to soak up some of the predictions. Here are some of the biggest takeaways.
By 2050, the World Health Organization believes there will be 115.4 million cases of dementia around the world thanks to aging populations. Right now we don’t have an effective treatment for a single neurodegenerative disease, but Ajay Varma, the Vice President for Global Early Stage Neurology & Experimental Medicine at Biogen Idec, believes that will soon change. And once we have a treatment for one, it will become easier to develop treatments for other diseases with overlapping features. As Varma points out, there are already treatments in the drug pipeline.
Varma’s big predictions: by 2020, we’ll have a reliable biomarker that can predict neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, much like we use cholesterol to predict heart disease risk (it’s possible that electronic gadgets could turn into a biomarker for disease, monitoring mistakes in our typing and actions). By 2050, there will be a "mental revolution." We’ll have effective, safe treatments for at least 10 neurodegenerative disorders. And if we’re lucky, humans will have some telepathic communication capabilities.
Advancements in EEGs and fMRIs are making it easier to see what’s happening in someone’s brain in near-real time. We’re getting ever closer to the holy grail: real-time information on what’s happening in brain circuits during different activities.
It’s possible today to use an EEG to send Bluetooth commands to an electronic device. Varma believes that technology will only become more advanced. Driving a wheelchair with an EEG? You can already do that—in fact, Instructables offers directions on building a DIY version.
Let’s not forget about BrainGate, a brain implant system created by Cyberkinetics that tracks brain activity of people with diseases like ALS and turns their thoughts into computer commands. BrainGate is still in the testing stages, but Varma predicts that one day the technology could be used by laypeople. Why bother typing when you can just harness your brain implant to connect to the Internet?
Dr. Catherine Mohr, the director of medical research at Intuitive Surgical (the company behind the Da Vinci surgical system), believes that robotic surgery is not a disruptive technology, though it might seem like it is at first. In reality, it just gives surgeons the ability to do the same things they already do with the same tools—just with fewer complications.
Mohr’s ideas for future occurrences that could really disrupt health care (and cancer care, specifically) include better harnessing dogs to sniff cancer, which they can already do remarkably well and immunotherapeutics that let doctors prime your immune system to fight your specific cancer ("That will disrupt big pharma, if everyone is treated with their own antibodies," she said at FutureMed). Maybe viruses are our future medicine: We’ve already discovered that there are adenoviruses that wipe out breast cancer cells, so one day "you go to the doctor to get a cold that wipes out cancer," Mohr speculated. "There are no surgeons, radiologists, chemo … you just get a common cold."
Perhaps we’ll discover destroying viruses are actually the key to stopping disease; researchers today know that there’s a viral step in almost every kind of cancer. Nanoviricides (compounds that bind to and kill viruses) will perhaps be the thing that allows, as Mohr put it, "an entire generation to get to age 70 and have no signs of cancer because we interrupted all the viral steps."
Any one of the things described above could happen in the relatively near future—or they could all remain visions of a future that never arrived. For the sake of humanity, we’ll hope that the predictions of Varma and Mohr come to pass.