The past weekend we spent at Stanford Medicine X, listening to interesting and inspiring talks, and interacting with a diverse group of people and the ideas they brought with them. The event is designed to bring people from all aspects of medical care, including doctors and nurses, patients and caretakers, insurance reps, hospital administrators, policy makers, product designers, and many others. It was somewhat overwhelming, but because different rooms were used to host presentations in parallel we were able to choose which discussions to attend.
Being a medical technology site, we were particularly interested in hearing from the finalists of the Astellas Oncology C3 Prize. C3 stands for “Changing Cancer Care” and the goal is to sponsor ideas that improve how patients experience cancer care. This is not a “find a cure” prize, but it springs from the sober assessment that cancer is and will be with us for a long time and we need to get better at helping patients get to and through their therapies.
The judges included Robert Herjavec of Shark Tank fame and founder and CEO of Herjavec Group (here’s a link to our interview with Robert), as well as Michael Seres, Medicine X ePatient-in-Residence, Chris Coburn, Vice President of Innovation at Partners HealthCare, and Mark Reisenauer, head of Astella‘s Oncology division.
We heard from five finalists who were chosen from more than 100 applications that came in from all over the world. The winner will receive $50,000 while two runners up will receive $25,000 each. Each of the winners will also get to be involved in a program at a Chicago medtech incubator called Matter.
The first was Mark Harrison, the CEO of Australian Prostate Cancer Research, an organization that supports Australian men living with prostate cancer. The organization built an online platform called PROSTMATE that helps men in rural settings to connect with and assist them through receiving medical care. PROSTMATE can be used via a smartphone, tablet, or an old-fashioned computer to receive support between office visits. This is crucial for men who live in areas where the nearest hospital may be a couple hundred miles away yet a communication satellite that can provide a link that is hovering just overhead. Australia has a national broadband program and satellites that provide most people the ability to get online even in remote places, so PROSTMATE is readily available just about anywhere.
Via the app the patients can be easily reached between office visits and they can connect to different care providers that work with them. It provides a timeline of their journey, including results of PSA and blood tests, gives them an opportunity to do self checkups and to track their mood, and lets them avoid what can be an overwhelming healthcare experience via a self-directed learning portal where they can learn about their journey through the healthcare system. All this can be made available to the patients’ partners who can help with logging and gathering information as well.
Next we heard from Diane Jooris who came from Brussels, Belgium and was representing a new company called Oncomfort. They develop virtual reality games and experiences to help people, particularly women undergoing breast cancer treatment, preparing for surgery, chemotherapy, and other procedures to calm their nerves and even fight pain. Anxiety is a serious problem for a lot of people about to undergo challenging procedures, but medications have their side effects and are often not appropriate for many situations. Virtual reality can help distract a worried mind and take patients on a different journey that helps to temporarily forget the difficult situations they find themselves in.
We didn’t get a chance to try out their anxiety and pain fighting modules, but they were described as being either games or scenic environments. They’re also tailored to prepare for specific treatments and for different age groups to achieve maximum engagement. The modules are already being used in a few cancer centers in Europe and are available in a number of languages.
An example of one of the games turns you into a chemo agent that attacks tumor cells, so while you are distracted from your own cancer treatment you get to fight cancer (virtually) nevertheless.
We’ve been quite intrigued ourselves by the promise of immersive virtual reality to address a number of healthcare issues and recently interviewed the CEO of AppliedVR, a company working along similar lines as Oncomfort. This field can be surprising and its potential in clinical care still needs to be identified, but there’s a lot of promise and we’re looking forward to seeing companies like this developing new VR tools that will help patients in a variety of ways.
Kevin Linn out of Vancouver, Canada came with an idea that’s looking for implementation. He’s been working with cancer patients for a few years and noticed the widespread problem these folks experience of getting to and from their scheduled chemo and radiation therapy appointments. What he also noticed is that there are lots of people willing to help with transportation, but there isn’t an easy platform to link willing drivers with needy patients.
Kevin suggests that the power of social networks can be harnessed to solve this problem so that friends and friends of friends would be aware of someone’s transportation needs. In particular, getting the same person to volunteer to take a patient to therapy and pick them up afterwards is more difficult than it sounds because it typically requires the volunteer to wait for the patient to return from therapy, usually requiring them to take time off work.
Kevin imagines some kind of application, perhaps built into an existing social media platform (think Facebook), where patients can list their therapy schedules and transportation needs, and friends of the patients would be able to share those with their own social networks. This can help greatly expand the support base that patients can tap into for their transportation to the clinic and back, while splitting the trip between two drivers can alleviate the challenge of having to offer a lot of personal time to help someone in need.
This platform is still in the conceptual stage, but Kevin believes it shouldn’t be difficult to build. Since his background is in public health, having a masters in the field and currently serving as a Senior Policy Analyst for cancer at First Nations Health Authority of Canada, he’ll need a technical team to put this into practice. The idea is certainly a promising one and we look forward to seeing it implemented in one way or another.
Eric Luellen of Boston, MA presented Rx&You, an online platform that utilizes artificial intelligence to address medical compliance, coordination of care, prevent dangerous drug interactions, and provide targeted educational tools for patients. Additionally, it can potentially identify unknown side effects of drugs and discover which patient populations are the most susceptible to the treatment. And it has already been built and is ready to be used.
The platform is attempting to connect patients, providers, pharma, and payers so that everyone is on the same page. It uses an artificial intelligence concept called “complex event processing” to run a drug event system that automatically screens for possible drug interactions as soon as a prescription is issued, and creates personalized reminders to take those drugs. It also offers information on those drugs so patients are clued in on their therapy. If the patients choose not to take their drugs at certain instances, the system uses its AI skills to figure out why not. Additionally, patients are able to report back any symptoms they feel that may be related to a negative reaction to a drug, allowing pharma companies and agencies like the FDA to be made quickly aware of an unnoticed problem. There are also tools to keep in touch with the relevant parties that play a role in a patient’s care, since these days there might be a number of clinicians, caretakers, insurance providers, and other players that a patient is reliant upon. On top of all this Rx&You laid over pattern matching algorithms that may identify interesting correlations that clinical researchers and pharma companies may end up looking deeper into.
It does sound like a good idea, but implementation and design are keys, so we’re looking forward to see how well this system ends up being adopted.
Wrapping up the presentations we heard from Larry Pederson of The Litebook Company who has been working on making light therapy more accessible and useful even for cancer care. It isn’t news that people living in the far North can suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and bright lamps have been used for decades by people from Alaska to Finland to fight off symptoms of depression. Larry himself experienced acute SAD when he fairly suddenly became suicidal after moving to Canada in the winter for a few months. His physician prescribed him a large light box in front of which he sat on a regular basis and in just a short amount of time his suicidal thoughts simply vanished away.
Larry became fascinated by this and set out to build a smaller light source that can be portable and used by people wherever they find themselves. It required a blue LED to be developed first by scientists in Japan, for which a Nobel prize in physics was awarded just a couple years ago. When the technology was finally available, Larry’s company built the first devices and discovered that effective treatment time was reduced from about an hour to only fifteen minutes.
Lately it has been noticed that people undergoing chemotherapy have many of the same side effects as the symptoms of jet lag, and light has already been used in a number of clinical trials to help alleviate them. The theory right now is that the chemotherapy or the cancer itself is somehow affecting the circadian rhythms and that light can be used to counteract this effect. A receptor in the eye was identified as being tuned to a couple narrow bands of green and blue light, and targeting it seems to be the pathway through which light therapy works. Thanks to this understanding, using only LEDs that emit light at those frequencies has allowed Larry and his company to build small devices that can illuminate the eyes fairly intensely for up to six hours.
The Litebook Company is looking to be able to offer their technology to more chemo patients and to better understand how light can be effectively used before and after treatment.
All the presentations were fascinating and we are excited about the potential of various technologies to improve cancer care. The decision is now in the hands of the four judges and the three winners will be announced next month at the 2016 European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark. We’ll keep you posted about the winners as soon as we get the word.