Startups, Diagnostics, Artificial Intelligence

Bill Gates on 2019’s five breakthrough healthcare technologies

The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist’s choices for the healthcare innovations that have the potential to change the world range from personalized cancer vaccines to voice assistants.

The MIT Technology Review’s enlisted Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to help create its list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2019 for its March/April issue and half were healthcare focused.

That’s not so much of a surprise for a person who’s post-Microsoft activities have focused on improving health in developing world through initiatives in global sanitation and infectious diseases. Gates also invested $50 million in the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund seeking to create treatments for dementia.

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A Deep-dive Into Specialty Pharma

A specialty drug is a class of prescription medications used to treat complex, chronic or rare medical conditions. Although this classification was originally intended to define the treatment of rare, also termed “orphan” diseases, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US, more recently, specialty drugs have emerged as the cornerstone of treatment for chronic and complex diseases such as cancer, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

“Fifty years ago, there were very few middle-income countries. Then there’s the ability of science to solve problems. In heart disease and cancer we’ve made a lot of progress; in some of the more chronic diseases like depression and diabetes … Even in obesity, we’re gaining some fundamental understandings of the microbiome and the signaling mechanisms involved,” Gates said in an interview with MIT Tech Review Editor Gideon Lichfield.

Here are Gates’ selections for the healthcare innovations that have the potential to change the world

1. Testing for premature birth risk factors

Every year 15 million babies are born prematurely and it ranks as the leading cause of death for children under the age of five. In the United States, the rate of pre-term births has been rising for the past few years and racial disparities in premature births have also widened. Gates identified Akna Dx, the brainchild of renowned scientist and serial entrepreneur Stephen Quake, as one potential tool to lower those numbers. The company is developing a genetic blood test to predict if a woman is at higher risk for pre-term birth, giving clinicians a head start in figuring out how to prevent the issue

2. Making it easier to screen for gut disease

Gut diseases like environmental enteric dysfunction – which creates chronic intestinal inflammation – leaves people malnourished and physically underdeveloped, especially for children in resource-poor regions. The condition is difficult to diagnose and treat, but a new invention from Massachusetts General Hospital pathologist Guillermo Tearney could make it easier. Tearney has developed a swallowable probe which can image and biopsy the gut without requiring anesthesia.

3. Personalized cancer vaccines

Medicine continues to move towards a personalized approach to treating cancer which takes into account the unique genetic makeup and situation of the patient and their tumorous cells. German biotech company BioNTech has partnered with Genentech on mRNA based therapies which can reprogram the body to attack cancerous cells and manufacture these individualized treatment at scale.

4. Wearable EKG monitors 

The idea of wearable device that can be used to track heart rates and diagnose potential cardiac issues has gained a lot of steam over the past year. The recent activities of companies like AliveCor, Apple and Withings in the space seems poised to make big breakthroughs in the near future to turn the technology from a nice feature to a live-saving one through the detection of heart attack.

5. Voice assistants in the clinic

While voice assistants like Alexa and Siri have made their way into living rooms and people’s daily routines, the use of these devices in healthcare is still in the early stages. But that seems to likely to change in the near future through of startups like Suki and Orbita, as well as tech giants like Amazon and Google, to use HIPAA-compliant voice-enabled technology to help guide patients in their care, relieve physician burnout and increase efficiency in the clinical care process.

Picture: Christian Marquardt, Getty Images