Smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper medical devices

http://3278as3udzze1hdk0f2th5nf18c1.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/drop-theranos.jpg
image via singularityhub.com

Is it just me or does it seem that most interesting medical device innovations are coming from startups and not from established companies? Here are a few medical devices being developed that are smaller, faster, lighter, and cheaper than established technologies and products.

The point of care diagnostic system being developed by startup Theranos relies heavily on microfluidic and automation technologies. The technology, while impressive, is not revolutionary. Theranos is using readily accessible technology to develop a point-of-care diagnostic test device that can be operated by virtually anyone. The test uses a pinprick to collect a drop of blood to perform all of its tests. No need for a nurse or technician. The test is completely automated so there is no need for a diagnostic technician.

Time is saved because the sample is processed onsite instead of being transported to a central lab and there is negligible wait time compared with large diagnostic equipment. One of the biggest drawbacks to present diagnostic testing is the wait: patients are anxious and physicians often can’t administer medicine or therapy until and unless an initial diagnosis is confirmed.

Tribogenics is developing the next generation of x-ray imaging technology. From the company website:

Tribogenics technology enables portable, compact X-ray solutions for applications in industrial testing, medical diagnosis, security screening and other industries. By miniaturizing X-ray sources and eliminating the need for high voltage, we can create products and solutions unattainable using existing X-ray technology.

While I’m not sure how big the opportunity is for pocket-sized x-ray machines in medicine, there are plenty of industrial and commercial uses. Plus, the potential for portability, low cost, and simplicity may make the Tribogenics device well-suited for deployment in developing countries with little or no medical infrastructure.

The third technology I’m writing about isn’t a product but a concept. The Smartphone Physical is being termed “the physician’s bag of the 21st century.” In a recent TED Talk, Shiv Gaglani showed that a complete physical exam could be conducted with a smartphone and what are essentially smart attachments. For example, companies have developed or are developing ECG leads, a stethoscope, otoscope, ultrasound wand, and even a spiromoter. Gaglani and his colleagues are creating a database of connected devices and apps and hope to start a company to commercialize the Smartphone Physical.

One concern about the Smartphone Physical is a condition that is described by a new word, cyberchondria. Yes, it means hypochondria that is facilitated (or exacerbated) by the ready availability of digital and connected devices and apps. Don’t think it could happen? Ask any doctor about how many patients self-diagnose on the Internet before their office visit. Cyberchondria is real.

Takeaways: If you can take an existing medical device or technology and improve it by making it smaller, faster, lighter, and/or cheaper, you have the makings of a company. Your new device doesn’t have to be better than what it replaces but it would make it easier to sell if it had the same quality, accuracy, etc.

There are plenty of examples of medical devices that are big, bulky, slow and costly. Give customers two or more benefits based on eliminating or minimizing these undesirable features and you will create a market niche for your products.

Read more:

Small, Fast and Cheap, Theranos Is the Poster Child of Med Tech — and It’s in Walgreen’s | Singularity Hub.

http://www.theranos.com/

California Startup, Tribogenics, Develops Smart Phone Sized Portable X-ray Machines | Singularity Hub.

http://tribogenics.com/

Smartphone Physicals Are Taking Off With Explosion of Apps, Attachments | Singularity Hub.

http://www.smartphonephysical.com/

 

Too good to be true…or just hype?

http://www.getairo.com/img/airoband.png
image via getairo.com

In a development many were expecting, Canadian mobile health startup Airo Health backed off on its launch of the world’s first wearable device that could track caloric intake. The bold initial product announcement and aggressive commercialization timing led many to think it was too good to be true. Others dismissed the story as just hype.

 

In a story on techvibes.com, the company announced today that it was cancelling pre-orders and issuing refunds to prospective customers.

“Our early testing of AIRO shows tremendous promise, but through conversations with others in the industry, we have come to realize that it requires further testing and calibration through more extensive trials before it will be ready for general market availability,” wrote founder Abhilash Jayakumar in an email to backers this week. “The additional validation required will take us some time and, unfortunately, we no longer expect to be able to ship the first AIRO wristbands by Fall 2014 as initially indicated.”

From the Airo Health website:

NUTRITION

We all know the importance of eating right, but keeping track of what we eat takes too much effort. AIRO is able to automatically track both the calories you consume and the quality of your meals. With a built in spectrometer, AIRO uses different wavelengths of light to detect nutrients released into the bloodstream as they are broken down during and after your meals.

STRESS

AIRO helps you become proactive about stress. It measures heart rate variability, the aggregate response of your autonomic nervous system, derived from heart rate, to measure the smallest fluctuations in your stress levels. AIRO can not only warn you as your stress levels rise but can also provide recommendations as to how best to deal with it. Over time, AIRO gets smarter by learning what calms you and what doesn’t.

SLEEP

We spend a third of our lives sleeping but we know very little about it. AIRO tracks your circadian rhythm and can see distinct sleep cycles. It’ll wake you up at the optimum time and will let you know how much of your night’s sleep was restorative.

EXERCISE

It’s no secret that living an active lifestyle can lead to a long and healthy life. The best way to keep track of your daily activity is to monitor your heart rate; everything else is just a proxy. By tracking your heart rate, AIRO calculates the number of calories your body burns throughout the day.

I wrote about Airo Health and my healthy skepticism of its commercialization timing here. So did MedCityNews and mobilehealthnews.

Takeaways: Developing new medical technology is difficult, much more so than envisioning it. What works in the lab seldom works as well in humans. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get free PR for new and interesting technology without much proof. You can even generate orders without having a functional prototype.

It’s too soon to know if Airo Health actually has unique and innovative mobile health technology. It’s also too soon to know if the company has forever tarnished its reputation. I’m guessing they have “one more chance to make it right”. If they go away and perfect their technology and then try to promote it, the media will grab the story because of the company’s previous sins. If they fail again, I believe it will be virtually impossible to get press or investor attention.

Good luck, Airo.

Read more:

http://www.techvibes.com/blog/airo-health-cancels-preorders-2013-11-21

Startup unveils a wearable device it says can count calories — but it doesn’t actually exist yet – MedCity News.

Question marks, incredulity meet the announcement of Airo | mobihealthnews.

The Clever Bottle vs. the Smart Pill

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image via clevercaprx.com

Patients are terrible at taking prescription medications. A couple of startups have developed devices that aim to solve the problem, but with wildly different solutions: The Clever Bottle vs. the Smart Pill.

A recent study by WHO estimated that 50% of patients with chronic illnesses don’t take their drugs as prescribed. This behavior increases deaths and complications. Further, it costs about $100 billion per year in avoidable healthcare costs.

 

 

Medication compliance is a problem that has been around for thousands of years. In fact, a paper in The Mayo Clinic Proceedings included a quote from Hippocrates who lived and practiced medicine more than two thousand years ago:

Keep a watch…on the faults of the patients, which often make them lie about the taking of things prescribed. For through not taking disagreeable drinks, purgative or other, they sometimes die.

Hippocrates, Decorum

Ensuring that patients take their medications seems to be an unglamorous approach to a big and costly healthcare problem. It’s also a potentially lucrative market. While neither of the solutions would be considered simple or low tech by most people, they are direct in how they address the issue.

The Clever Cap pill bottle is something most of us might say, “hey, I thought of that!” The people at Compliance Meds Technologies in south Florida took the next step and developed their idea. The Clever Cap fits on standard pill bottles, dispenses only the prescribed amount of medication, keeps track of medications dispensed, and communicates wirelessly with mobile devices or with a special hub. The hub is a device made by Qualcomm in their attempt to cash in on the vast potential in mobile and digital health data.

CleverCap can also be reprogrammed and reused. The device is reported to work even without a wireless connection. It’s not clear what happens if the batteries die. What the CleverCap can’t do is know if the patient really swallowed the pills.

The Smart Pill, branded as the Ingestion Event Marker or IEM by its developer, Proteus Digital Health of Redwood City, California, aims to embed a microchip in each pill. The chip is activated and powered by stomach acid and apparently passes harmlessly through the digestive system and is eliminated. The chip communicates time and date ingested as well as physiological and behavioral patient data to a wrist patch worn by the patient.

Very high tech. Indeed, the company has partnerships with Novartis, Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, and Oracle among others. The company has raised a lot of money including $62.5 million in “the second closing of its F round.” Proteus has received FDA marketing clearance, a de novo 510(k) for its technology. It remains to be seen if drug manufacturers will need additional FDA clearance to use the technology with their pharmaceuticals.

The Smart Pill definitely knows if the patient swallowed the pills. The big question is whether patients want this much technology in their bodies vs. the less intrusive CleverCap. My guess is that there is probably room for both solutions in this potentially large emerging market.

Takeaways: There are unsolved problems and unmet needs everywhere in healthcare. We’ve all daydreamed about things like smart pills and clever caps. Keep an open mind and perhaps you will recognize a new opportunity.

Both of these technologies are potentially disruptive and they both make use of the latest information technology including cloud analytics and reporting. The CleverCap seems to have the quickest path to market but the Smart Pill has all sorts of other potential capabilities and that’s probably why the company is well-funded and flush with partners. Both strategies seem viable and there’s plenty of room in the market for their innovations and more.

Read more:

CleverCap Pill Bottle Connects to Wifi, Dispenses Only as Directed, Uploads To The Cloud | Singularity Hub.

The Pills Have Eyes: Microchipped Medicine Is Coming | Singularity Hub.

Medication Adherence: WHO Cares?.

The artificial hip fiasco

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hip_replacement
image via wikipedia.org

Designing medical devices is hard work. Designing artificial joints is even harder. The ongoing artificial hip fiasco in the medical device industry is proof.

Artificial joints such as hips and knees are incredible technologies. They can take people out of wheelchairs and turn them into active adults. The crippling pain and infirmity of arthritis and other degenerative diseases are banished, at least for a while.

The requirements for these high tech medical devices are challenging. They are implants, subjected to full immersion in bodily fluids and subject to all of the stresses and biochemical processes of the human body. Ideally, the implant should last the rest of the patient’s life although that seems to be one of the most challenging requirements.

Implants such as artificial joints that must move may be the most difficult of all to design and to last in the body. Materials selection is particularly challenging. Metal implants must be sufficiently hard and tough to take the loading and repetitive motion of a patient’s joint for years and years. Ceramic implants must be fracture-resistant to impact loads and shocks, say from a jump or a fall. Polymer implants must be low friction but must not break up under mechanical stress or chemical attack. And coatings must not migrate to other parts of the body. Of course, none of the materials in the implants can be toxic.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an ideal combination of materials for hip implants. Interestingly as well (and I’m sure of substantial frustration to device engineers), there does not appear to be a reliable in vitro or in vivo model with which to perform wear and life testing. If there were a robust model, none of these implants would have made it to market without major revisions in materials and/or design.

Implant designs have failed mechanically through fracture and friction and more insidiously, have raised the potential for cancer and autoimmune disorders through migration of metals, coatings, and polymers to other areas of the body. In many cases, patients have undergone additional implant surgeries as a result of the failures. And these are not trivial operations.

A report today in Fierce Medical Devices indicated that Johnson & Johnson has settled 7,500 lawsuits for its metal-on-metal hip implants for a whopping $4 billion. That’s an average of $300,000 per implant and is in addition to other lawsuits settled in October. Other lawsuits against J&J are still pending as well as legal exposure outside the U.S. J&J announced recently that it will exit the metal-on-metal and ceramic-on-metal implant markets in 2014. I’m guessing that the legal settlements wiped out any profits made over the years and is probably going to cost untold numbers of jobs.

J&J’s competitors have problems too. According the the Fierce Medical article, Biomet, Stryker, and others are facing similar liability situations with respect to metal-on-metal implants.

The market for these devices is large and increasing. Hip implants are one of the most frequent orthopedic surgeries. As the population of seniors in the U.S. and other developed countries continues to grow while the baby boom generation ages, demand for procedures that maintain active lifestyles will continue to increase.

Takeaways: The onus is on medical device engineers to create valid in vitro and in vivo preclinical models and to test exhaustively before releasing to manufacturing. Engineers and researchers must also identify biomaterials and designs that are truly biocompatible and able to meet the demanding requirements that these implants must satisfy.

Give the track record of implants, engineers and medical device executives can expect increased scrutiny and skepticism from regulatory agencies, investors, physicians, and patients and their families.

Of course, it also means that there is an incredible opportunity awaiting the company or engineer that can solve this intractable issue.

Read more:

Report: J&J settles most metal hip lawsuits in $4B-plus accord – FierceMedicalDevices.

More Artificial Hip Concerns – NYTimes.com.

Jumper Cables for Your Brain

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2013/11/03/magazine/03brain1/mag-03brain-t_CA0-articleLarge.jpgA novel therapy that improves mental performance in healthy people is being called “jumper cables for your brain.” The scientific name for the therapy is transcranial direct-current stimulation, tDCS for short.

A similar yet very different treatment, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly called electroshock therapy, doesn’t have a positive image in most peoples’ minds. Popular culture including movies and TV has convinced most of us that it’s used to treat crazy people, usually with extremely undesirable outcomes, and that the people giving the treatment are either mad scientists or evil government agents.

ECT does have a place in modern neuroscience, however. It is often the last resort therapy for patients with intractable depression and other conditions that do not respond to drug treatments.

tDCS uses very low voltage and very little current to achieve its effect, less than 1% of the enegy used in ECT. The tDCS devices being studied today use a 9 volt battery for power. tDCS researchers have been using currents in the range of 300 to 500 microamps. In contrast, ECT uses much more current, about 2000 times as much. According to an article in Wikipedia, “Typically, the electrical stimulus used in ECT is about 800 milliamps…”

 Researchers have identified a myriad of benefits for the novel therapy. From the article in The New York Times:

Scientific papers published in leading peer-reviewed journals since 2005 have shown that tDCS can improve the speed or accuracy with which people perform [a computerized] attention-switching task. Other studies have found it can improve everything from working memory to long-term memory, math calculations, reading ability, solving difficult problems, piano playing, complex verbal thought, planning, visual memory, the ability to categorize, the capacity for insight, post-stroke paralysis and aphasia, chronic pain and even depression. Effects have been shown to last for weeks or months.

“tDCS will not make you superhuman, but it may allow you to work at your maximum capacity,” said Felipe Fregni, the Brazilian physician and neurophysiologist who runs Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “It helps you achieve your personal best level of functioning. Let’s say you didn’t sleep well the night before. Or perhaps you’re depressed, or you suffered a stroke. It helps your brain reach its peak performance.”

No one is really sure why the therapy works although there are theories. The brain is essentially a very complex electrochemical computer. Applying a weak electrical field to neurons while performing a task seems to make the neurons fire easier and to remember the task for some time. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet identified the specific mechanism that is responsible for the improvements. As a result, research funding has been sparse because peer reviewers for funding agencies in the U.S. government remain skeptical.

A number of companies are pursuing commercialization of tDCS technology and are engaged with the U.S. FDA on the regulatory approval process. ECT devices are categorized as Class III or pre-market approval (PMA). It remains to be seen if the new, lower power devices also fall into the PMA category. A less restrictive FDA classification would mean a greater market potential and benefits to ordinary healthy people who are looking for a little mental advantage. I would definitely consider trying one of these devices in exchange for a few of those mental benefits!

Takeaways: There are many processes and body functions that are not fully understood or characterized. When researchers continue to investigate these promising areas despite a lack of funding, it might mean that there is an opportunity for collaboration and eventual commercialization.

Of course, something like tDCS, “brain enhancement technology” comes with risks. What might be the long term effect of the therapy on the brain? What about effects on children and adolescents?

Finally, it will be imperative to separate the new technology from the stigma of electroconvulsive therapy in order to appeal to healthy consumers.

Read more:

Jumper Cables for the Mind | New York Times Magazine

GLNT gets another patent to treat Parkinson’s for transcranial direct current stimulation during sleep.

Renal Denervation – the next big thing?

blood pressure checkIt seems like every big medical device company is working on a technology for renal denervation to treat high blood pressure.

Development and market availability of a therapy for hypertension (high blood pressure) is a big deal. Here are some facts about hypertension from the World Heart Federation:

  • Globally, nearly one billion people have high blood pressure (hypertension); of these, two-thirds are in developing countries.
  • Hypertension is one of the most important causes of premature death worldwide and the problem is growing; in 2025, an estimated 1.56 billion adults will be living with hypertension.
  • Hypertension is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease worldwide.
  • People with hypertension are more likely to develop complications of diabetes.

Some additional facts about hypertension in the USA from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • 67 million American adults (31%) have high blood pressure—that’s 1 in every 3 American adults.
  • 69% of people who have a first heart attack, 77% of people who have a first stroke, and 74% of people with chronic heart failure have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also a major risk factor for kidney disease.
  • More than 348,000 American deaths in 2009 included high blood pressure as a primary or contributing cause.
  • High blood pressure costs the nation $47.5 billion annually in direct medical expenses and$3.5 billion each year in lost productivity.
  • About half (47%) of people with high blood pressure have their condition under control.

Hypertension is treated currently with drugs of course. According to a report from ADS Reports, the global market for antihypertensive drugs was $29.9 billion in 2010 and is projected to reach $33 billion in 2017. That’s a huge target for interventional therapy.

I wrote about Bellevue, WA-based Kona Medical a couple of weeks ago receiving a $10 million investment specifically earmarked for their market entry into China, obviously one of the biggest potential markets.

Kona recently announced interim results from two ongoing clinical trials. It reported an average systolic blood pressure reduction of 29 mmHg at 6 months in their first study and a three-month drop of 19.4 mmHg in the second study using a dosing pattern that reduced therapy time from 13 to three minutes.

Kona’s results are significant because its therapy is completely noninvasive. It uses high intensity focused ultrasound on the surface of the skin to deliver energy to ablate the renal nerves.

Other companies developing renal denervation technologies include St. Jude Medical, Boston Scientific, and Medtronic. Each has chosen a different energy modality to deliver the therapy.

MedCityNews reports that St. Jude is using a multi-electrode catheter to deliver electrical energy to the renal nerve sites. The company reported results from a clinical study: at 18 months, 77 percent of the 46 patients treated with St. Jude’s technology, the EnligHTN system, had responded to therapy. St. Jude’s system total ablation time is about four minutes, according to a company statement.

The Boston Scientific therapy uses bipolar (electrical) energy to deliver therapy. After 12 months, the company reported a “clinically-meaningful decrease in office systolic blood pressure” in 85 percent of the 139 patients treated. The Boston Scientific therapy requires a brief 30-second treatment time.

Medtronic seems to have a head start in the market. In early 2011, it finalized its purchase of Ardian, a Silicon Valley startup that was working on a novel therapy for hypertension since 2003. The Medtronic RDN system therapy uses radio frequency energy delivered via a catheter to the renal arteries/nerves. Medtronic’s Symplicity renal denervation system has a CE mark and is commercially available outside the U.S. Medtronic has a number of completed and ongoing clinical studies, all of which have resulted in conclusions that the therapy is safe and effective.

Takeaways: New markets are one area where startups can compete on a level playing field with huge, multinational companies. They can be more nimble, take more risks, and can pivot when things don’t go according to plan. In the case of renal denervation, Kona seems to have a decided advantage with its noninvasive technology and treatment. Of course, Medtronic has a years-long head start and we all know the “best” technology doesn’t always prevail, right?

Read more:

Two top medical device companies announce promising renal denervation tech results – MedCity News.

Kona notches solid results for novel renal denervation tech – FierceMedicalDevices.

 

 

How many calories were in that cheeseburger?

CheeseburgerA Canadian startup has developed technology that may disrupt the mobile health tracking market. Airo Health is commercializing a nutrition tracker that can passively detect and inform the wearer exactly how many calories were consumed in the user’s last meal.

The nutrition tracker uses a light emitter and detector in a wristband and fairly sophisticated software in a smartphone app to measure metabolites in the bloodstream. The metabolites are released during and after the user’s meal.

The Airo device also detects the user’s heartbeat and uses that information to assess activity and fitness levels. All of this analysis starts with sensors in a small, unobtrusive wristband.

According to the company co-founder, Abhilash Jayakumar, Airo received US$81,400 in seed funding from the Canadian federal government and the University of Waterloo. The company says it is planning a commercial launch in the fall of 2014 – that’s just a year or so away. Airo has not yet built production prototypes, so their launch date is most likely optimistic.

In an interview with MobiHealthNews, Jayakumar said the sensor bracelet is detecting accurate calorie intakes about 80% of the time. That’s an exciting development, but the lead times for consumer electronics make a full commercial launch in a year improbable at best.

The fledgling startup has done impressive work with very little funding. They are taking digital health and the “quantified self” movement to a new level. Competitors are no doubt already starting development of their own passive calorie tracking technology. What would really be disruptive is an app to make you not eat that cheeseburger in the first place!

Takeaways: Mobile health sensors and applications are getting progressively more sophisticated. It remains to be seen if there is a sizeable market for these devices and apps but they are capable of measuring things in real time that were previously available only in a doctor’s office by appointment. The commercial availability of a Star Trek-like Tricorder device may be only a few years away.

Most of the personal fitness devices are targeted at healthy people. There is a large opportunity as well in monitoring people with chronic diseases or those recovering from surgery.

Read more:

AIRO ups the ante with passive nutrition tracking