This week, we hand over to regular blogger Alex Abel who recently returned from London’s WIRED Health.
Following last year’s successful inaugural event, WIRED Health returned to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in Euston Square, London, on the 24th of April, for a programme of exciting innovations in medicine.
From augmenting our bodies to decoding the brain, the desire to have greater control over human health and behaviour seemed to be the overarching theme at WIRED Health 2015.
Changing the body
One of the most dramatic and noticeable changes to the human body is amputation. The loss of a limb can have a profound effect on individuals, both physically and psychologically, but more than 20 million amputees around the world currently have no access to any sort of prosthetics.
One of my favourite talks of the day came from prosthetics pioneer Nigel Ackland – the man with the bionic hand – who showed us the difference a good prosthetic can make, not only in terms of function, but also self-esteem. People still stare at Nigel in the street, but with his bionic limb, it’s now a look of awe and curiosity.
Modelling bebionic, the world’s most advanced prosthetic, Nigel gave us a demonstration of the different grips his hand can accomplish. He went on to explain that his phantom limb and bionic one seem to be connected in his brain now, because when he is about to move his bionic hand, he feels his phantom limb move first. This must be a very peculiar sensation.
“I’m not The Terminator. I’m just an ordinary bloke who can tie his shoes.” – Nigel Ackland
Having an expert patient tell his story in his own words was a refreshing addition to the WIRED line up, and having met Nigel during the breaks, I don’t think they could have found a nicer man for the job.
Prosthetics designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata came to tell the other side of the story. Sophie founded The Alternative Limb Project a few years ago after being inspired by a two-year-old girl who lost her leg and wanted an out-of-the-ordinary replacement. She now makes many of these wonderful bespoke creations, turning replacing limbs into a work of art – something to be worn with pride.
Sophie uses the imagination of her clients to inform her designs. For performer Viktoria Modesta, Sophie made three unique creations: a large spike, a luminous limb, and a Swarovski crystal leg. And for a man who wanted an exact replica of his original limb, she modelled a silicone foot and even used hairs from the back of his neck for the toes.
What you call things affects how people behave. This was the conclusion of the thoroughly entertaining talk given by Rory Sutherland.
Using a topical example, Rory explained that if you want A&E to become less crowded, just start referring to it by it’s full name again: Accident and Emergency. The original name implies only the medically vital, whereas “A&E”, he said, sounds like your best friend. Another every day example of choice manipulation is that it’d be perfectly possible to manufacture a fly spray that smells nice; but we wouldn’t believe it. It’d be cognitively confusing!
Rory explained that the way choices are presented to us can also affect outcomes. For example, if you want patients to finish their course of antibiotics, don’t just give them 26 white pills; give them 20 white and 6 red and tell them to take the reds when they’ve finished the white.
“I think if we did have free will, we would have got better at exercising it by now.” – Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy & Mather UK.
Another man who recognises the implications of changing choice structure is Marc Koska, founder of the LifeSaver program. Every year, 1.3M people die from the reuse of syringes by medical professionals around the world – a preventable tragedy. Marc explained that it’s easier to make the wrong choice, so he came up with the K1 syringe that is impossible to reuse – a syringe credited with saving ten million lives to date.
If outside forces such as advertising, availability, and even nomenclature and scent weren’t enough, there is a much more unexpected ‘inside’ influence on human behaviour: Microbes!
John Cryan from University College Cork found that changing the microbiome of mice altered their social behaviour and response to stress. So our microbiome actually affects our mental health, and John coined the term ‘psychobiotics’ to describe live organisms that can produce benefits in patients with psychiatric illnesses, IBS, and chronic fatigue.
“In terms of DNA, we are 99% microbial.” – John Cryan, UCC
It is quite unnerving to think that, as John says, if microbes are controlling the brain, then microbes are controlling everything.
The Startup Stage
Running alongside the main event was the Bupa Startup Stage, a Dragon’s Den style contest where 17 keen competitors took to the floor to pitch their ideas in 9 minutes or less; and it wasn’t long before we were talking about the dog’s nose for a second year running. Dogs’ incredible ability to detect minute biochemical change in their human companions is the basis for Medical Detection Dogs, a company that provides trained dogs to help, for example, monitor the blood sugar levels of diabetic patients.
The line up of emerging and established entrepreneurs also included stress control platform Galvanic PIP, which measures electrodermal activity and allows you to monitor your stress on screen in the form of say a flying dragon; and Buddy, a mental health app that texts to ask about your day, and collects responses in the form of an online mood diary to supplement ongoing therapy.
“75% of people with mental health problems don’t get any treatment.” – Kitty Cormack, Buddy
And the winner is…
The Startup Stage winner was Ana Maiques from Neuroelectrics, sporting the wireless electrode cap, named Starstim, which uses transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS) to alter brain activity. Ana told us Starstim has been shown to improve stroke recovery speed by an impressive 20%, and the telemedicine platform may also help treat problems such as chronic pain, depression, and addiction.
Fun fact of the day
It is quite astonishing to think how far genomics has come in its relatively short study span. According to Bradley Perkins of Human Longevity Inc., genomics has changed every aspect of bacteriology; and us humans are next. Bradley assured us that genomics is going to be the biggest data of big data in Healthcare, opening the door to the next steps in synthetic biology and regenerative medicine.
Most inspiring statement
“Life changing doesn’t have to be life ending.” – Nigel Ackland
Until next year
I think the underlying message of the day can be nicely summed up by a quote from Geoff McGrath during his talk on optimising performance in healthcare.
“Breakthroughs in medicine space will come not just from design and technology, but it’ll definitely need a change of mindset.” – Geoff McGrath, McLaren Applied Technologies
This change of mindset might mean the incorporation of biosensor technology into our daily lives; sharing our biomedical secrets with architects of the ever-expanding universe of big data; or the willingness to make innovations accessible and affordable to the people who need them most. One thing is for sure, science and social science must continue to work hand in hand for the good of the planet and it’s increasingly tech savvy inhabitants.
All of the talks from WIRED Health 2015 are now available to watch via this playlist on the WIRED UK YouTube channel.
Many thanks to João Medeiros for inviting me and curating such a wonderful programme. Congratulations to the entire organising team.
Alexandra Abel is currently a first year medical student at Hull York Medical School. She graduated from Imperial College London with a BSc in Biomedical Science and Global Health, before completing a Master’s in Performance Science at the Royal College of Music, where she looked at the implications of teaching older generations to play a new musical instrument from scratch. In her spare time, Alex is learning to play the ukulele. Join her on twitter @alexandraabel