The Future of Health in a Connected World

In the medical world, the artificial pancreas is a unicorn, a still mythical device that could handle a seemingly magical task for diabetes patients: monitoring and regulating glucose levels in the body, despite the unpredictability of a person’s everyday health. The Artificial Pancreas In 2012, 29.1 million Americans had diabetes, up from 25.8 million in 2010, according to the latest available statistics from the American Diabetes Association. It remains the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, afflicting more than one in four seniors across America.

For those with type 2 diabetes, the most common form, a person’s body is insulin resistant; it’s not properly using insulin. Certain people with diabetes must understand their normal blood glucose levels, be able to recognize when those levels dip or spike, and educate themselves about proper dosages of insulin, then possibly give themselves injections. A device that would automatically know and track a user’s levels, monitor their real-time data, and even administer precise treatments at the moments they’re needed could act just like a functioning pancreas. The solutions unlocked by such a device would surely open up potential for artificial organs, too—the heart, maybe even the brain.

The Artificial Pancreas

Today, thanks to smart, connected, and increasingly intelligent medical technology, the unicorn looks a little more real. The Internet of Things, composed of connected devices, opened up a stream of data from our bodies. Now a new wave of intelligent tech not only analyzes and predicts what’s happening with patients’ bodies, it can recommend or take actions with little to no human intervention. This intelligence is helping us tackle a broad number of health and wellness issues. “It’s really about bringing forth artificial intelligence and using algorithms and then bringing it down into a way that is approachable and consumable by people,” says Stuart Karten, principal of Karten Design, a product innovation company in the medical and consumer arenas. Attempts to solve the diabetes challenge escalated in 1964, with the first blood sugar testing strips, developed by the Ames Company. By 1970, Ames introduced the first glucose meter. Then came the first wearable insulin pump in 1976. But only in this decade has the artificial pancreas become real. And it all has to do with intelligence built into handheld computers.

Global design, engineering, and manufacturing company Flex has partnered with a major consumer health company on a closed-loop system for diabetes patients that works a lot like an artificial pancreas. Its implanted glucose sensor and a smart insulin patch pump tells the body when and how much insulin to disperse based in real-time. “These are very precision mechanical devices with motors and gears and different drive mechanisms,” says Mark Kemp, president of Medical at Flex. “It’s much like a Swiss watch.” For the diabetes patient, it’s a life-changer. On a larger scale, once devices become intelligent enough to unlock a puzzle like diabetes management, all sorts of possibilities unfold. The Normalized Heart At the moment of this writing, 123,187 people across the United States are in need of a lifesaving organ transplant as reported by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). In the first 10 months of 2014, 27,036 transplants occurred. When it comes to matters of the heart, specifically, the story gets darker.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, about 70% of hearts available for donation will go unused, because hearts are not viable after cardiac death. The only source for a viable heart for transplant is from “brain dead” donors with actively beating hearts.

The Normalized Heart

Companies today are working on the problem. A “heart in a box” system, for example, keeps the organ warm and beating for an extended period until it’s transplanted. Implementation in hospitals is awaiting FDA pre- and post-clinical trial approvals. Separately, Karten Design has worked on a data reader, software application, and user interface for an Endotronix wireless sensor. It monitors pulmonary artery pressure, one of the first indicators of heart failure, and eliminates the need for a doctor to snake a catheter into your heart. It is implanted, requires no batteries, and lives in the pulmonary artery.

A small device is used to take readings by simply hovering it over your chest. “You dock it and you can get the data, it can go to your cardiologist, it can come back to you and you can see the trending of your pulmonary artery pressure,” Karten says. Devices like the pulmonary artery pressure sensor and another Karten project, the Latitude Heart Coach app, are now translating the data from sophisticated systems so consumers can take action—it’s the difference between smart, connected, and intelligent things. From the Football Field to the Medical Field Karten is enthusiastic about this new wave of technology. And Flex’s Kemp is excited about non-traditional companies entering the health and wellness space. “We’re helping to essentially miniaturize and mobilize different types of health care devices,” Kemp says.

The innovation goes far beyond the operating room. Sensor-lined sports helmets, for example, can monitor blows to players’ heads, but they often don’t reveal brain trauma. The Vector Mouthguard, a new wearable device by i1 Biometrics, transmits that data directly to a coach in plain language, so he can protect his players. It monitors and measures severity and location of hits in various sports, plus it records performance moments that a player and coach can review and improve upon. They chose a mouthguard because intracranial data provides objective, highly accurate impact data. A sensor and handheld smart device make this system simple to implement and use. After a beta program at Louisiana State University, the mouthguard debuted at the International CES in Las Vegas in January 2015.

From the Medical Field to the Football Field

“Apps and connectivity can become a natural dialogue with the patient,” Karten says. “There’s some magic there because of the algorithms that are being worked in the background and the artificial intelligence.” As wearables, sensors, smart patches, and our phones continue to get smarter, technology that is truly intelligent becomes a seamless part of our everyday lives. Karten believes humans will inevitably “chip” themselves—implant sensors to monitor our health. “It’s going to be a merger of sensor technology and the Internet of Things,” Karten says. “Sensors will be in the environment, and sensors will be on and in people.

All of that will be connected in a way that’s meaningful to people in terms of giving them the information when and where they want it. That’s really the future.” UNOS data has been updated based on latest reported data.