If you think, like I did until a few minutes ago, that blood tests at hospitals went into a big room full of people with white coats and pipette tubes you’d be wrong… apart from the white coats!
Here’s a great case study video from Siemens showing their Aptio Automation system working at the NHS Tayside Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, UK. It combines lots of types of testing (e.g. hematology, immumolgoy, coagulation) with all the test tubes loaded onto trays and then in they go. The operators (in the white coats still) tell the system the tests required and then it’s over to the machines. The appropriate diagnostics are all done without human intervention and then stored away, with the ability to recall them for additional tests or retests.
At Ninewells they’re currently handling nearly 2,000 tubes per hour at peak times – and when that emergency sample comes in they load it onto the tray the same as any other but the tube is then fast tracked – in the video you see it literally overtaking others.
The clinical director of the hospital says turnaround times reduced by about 25% which must have been from an already automated system as it just wouldn’t be physically possible to prepare, test and store that many sample manually in anywhere near the current processing time.
OK so it’s not yet the pin prick of blood with instant diagnosis which I’m waiting for but it’s a good start – and as always, once it’s a technology there’s nothing stopping it becoming smaller, faster and cheaper.
Video available on YouTube: Laboratory Automation Improving Patient Testing
We live in a high tech society, yes? Moore’s Law has seen computer power grow so fast that most of us carry more computing power around on our phone than was used to send people to the moon only a few decades ago. So why is it that the basic measurements for health are still a thermometer under the tongue and blood pressure based on a cuff round your arm at a specific time?
There are so many areas that rapidly improving technology can help in healthcare from drug discovery to laboratory automation, however here I’m going to focus on diagnostics.
There are already a few recently launched swallowable capsules that take images of a patients digestive tract as they pass through, reaching places its generally not possible to examine from the top or bottom (so to speak!) – these are known as capsule endoscopies and are typically quite a mouthful with dimensions of 1 to 2 centimetres. Give or take this is about the size of commercially available transistors in the 1950s compared to the 2014 fabrication technology of 14nm – that’s a million fold improvement in 60 years or a halving of size every 3 years (sorry Mr Moore, not your usual 18 months but this is back of an envelope maths so close enough).
So what happens when medical technology meets Moore’s Law? To allow sensors to monitor the bloodstream from within they’ll need to be about the size of a typical red blood cell, say 6 µm, so a two thousand fold improvement – easy, we should have that 33 years. Which means in the 2040s we could all have swarms of sensors monitoring every part of our bodies – checking blood pressure constantly at thousands of points in our circulatory system providing early warning of any constrictions that would indicate damage or plaque build up. And many years before that you’ll be able to take a daily capsule – not another vitamin but a daily cheap diagnostic for any digestive tract problems. No doctors will need to be involved unless something unusual is detected – maybe results sent to your smartphone, but already that sounds a bit dated – more likely sent to your personal health centre which all homes will have that monitors your every move, breath and perspiration to check you’re in the best possible condition.
Two research announcements caught my eye today which show that healthcare has turned into a technology and is therefore improving exponentially.
Firstly the Institute of Microelectronics Barcelona have attached barcode chips to immature egg cells. Initially to be used for assisted reproduction when eggs need to be tracked and monitored, this could easily be modified to tag any cells which could then help with diagnosis – for example (and I’m totally guessing here) a batch of chipped cells could be injected or swallowed and then the whole body scanned to monitor where they end up – highlighted if organs are working as expected.
Then (on the other side of the chip sandwich) theres the human on a microfluidic chip. The Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology have created a 1:100,000 scale human being (the organs anyway) which allows drugs to be checked for toxicity and efficacy in a much more realistic environment than today’s simple tissue samples. A device like this potentially allows every organ in the body to be tested early in the drug development process, minimising the risk of problems that only occur when the drug interacts with a living human body.
And in case you’re thinking that’s still a lot of work to do all that testing – check out this video on the BBC News website showing not only automated testing, but a robot that always makes its own decisions about what to test to make it even more efficient: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31124843