Set in its new home of the Francis Crick Institute, WIRED Health 2018 brought together world leaders and change-makers in cancer, aging, artificial intelligence, government, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals, to name but a few. Alongside the main event, cutting-edge medtech companies demonstrated their new technologies, and budding start-ups pitched for the chance to be crowned WIRED Health start-up of the year.
Bruce Levine from the University of Pennsylvania opened the day by setting the challenge of how to treat a condition like cancer, which is fundamentally the result of “our own bodies gone awry.” Bruce introduced pioneering CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell) therapy developed for relief from seemingly untreatable cancers. The pioneering therapy innovatively uses neutralized HIV to infect immune cells, carrying RNA inside the T-cells and reprogramming them to hunt cancer. The therapy has already shown astonishing results in chronic and acute lymphoid leukemia patients in 25 centers worldwide, and it became the first FDA-approved gene therapy last year.
Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Sanger Institute showcased the most comprehensive and high-resolution reference for disease that takes the form of the Human Cell Atlas. The library collates single cell RNA sequencing to define cells and tissues at the genomic level. With up to 100,000 individually sequenced cells per sample, incredible opportunities for digital pathology develop with the possibility to map the topology of genetic expression in tumors.
Nir Bazailai challenged the audience to consider the time we are losing by dying at an average age of 80, despite a theoretical maximum human lifespan closer to 115. Revealing fascinating data from a study of centenarians, Nir showed that the long-lived normally see a significant delay in the onset of any disease—often by 20 or 30 years. He has initiated the TAME (Targeting Aging with MEtformin) trial and hopes to replicate findings from animal models, which show that even some simple drugs can be repurposed to slow aging.
Dorcus Makgato shared her experiences as Health and Wellness Minister of Botswana, where she enacted her country’s bold vision for healthcare and access. Botswana was at one point affected by an HIV rate of 25% in the general population, but a pioneering effort to be the first nation to offer entirely free HIV treatment has seen this rate tumble. Describing this decision as “the best investment Botswana has ever made,” Dorcus urged the audience to think about how we invest in our healthcare systems, how important prevention can be, and the need to build smart collaborations to factor-in the complex (and often surprising) behaviors of human beings—whether ill or healthy.
Mary Herbert from the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Disease shared cutting edge research on the complex path to treating mitochondrial disease. Using pioneering IVF techniques—often incorrectly termed three-person-IVF—Herbert and her team are now able to eradicate the risk of debilitating and hard-to-diagnose hereditary disease. By understanding the very building blocks of life and cellular “power generation,” this research is offering hope to families around the world.
Later sessions showcased some of the work from the host Francis Crick Institute, including Lucy Collinson’s microscopy to revolutionize our understanding of the three-dimensional development and changes in cells involved in disease stages as diverse as dementia, tumor vascularization, and antibiotic resistance. Lucy also shared the citizen science project etch-a-cell, which is using the zooniverse crowd-sourcing platform to train algorithms to automatically extract cell features from billions of images with the help of the public’s collective eye and mouse finger. Andrew Steele, also from the Crick, shared his personal experience training a computer to diagnose coronary heart disease from 100,000 electronic healthcare records. Andrew cautioned the audience to be aware of the importance of missing data. In his analysis, the presence of missing data in health records wound up to be the strongest indicator of disease. These missing data points, he explained, betrayed a pattern of poor overall care. His conclusion highlighted that while marginally more accurate AI diagnosis tools can be built, many of the factors underpinning treatment success can come down to human actions.
Tania Boler from Elvie showcased the growing sector of medical femtech, with particular focus on her company’s device for pelvic floor training and rehabilitation. Tania shared often-shocking statistics that reveal the exclusion of uniquely female health from development—leaving innovation for the majority of the U.K. population decades behind other medical fields. Sharing her personal story of developing a female-centered medtech company, Tania charged the audience to embrace what has been taboo and ignored for too long. The success of Elvie’s adoption is testament to this, showing incredible demand that moved the product from prototype to integration into the NHS system in less than 3 years.
On the EY WIRED Access Stage eight ambitious start-up companies pitched their ideas to a panel of judges. A diverse range of concepts were on show, including virtual consultations, gaming to help young people in bereavement, AI-powered healthcare assistants and therapists, patent and researching sharing systems, and genetic data platforms. The judges selected Katerina Spranger from Oxford Heartbeat as the overall winner with her software platform to make cardiovascular implant surgery safer, cheaper, and more accurate by simulating device selection and placement.
An interview with Tej Tadi gave the audience insight into the company that he founded, MindMaze, which fuses immersive computing and neuroscience for rehabilitation therapy following stroke. MindMaze was Switzerland’s first unicorn company and has already helped over 500 patients to begin rehabilitation and recovery before they even see a physical or occupational therapists, and to continue that journey into their homes. Tej also spoke of exciting future focus areas for the technology, including managing chronic plain with VR and integrating facial expression response into the system.
Simba Gill introduced his company Evelo Biosciences and reminded us that drugs are a very blunt solution for our bodies, which are complex homeostatic creatures colonized by microbes at their core. Simba’s focus is on the gut—an essential moderator of human biology with intimate connections to both the immune and nervous systems. After centuries of medicine trying to destroy microbes, the team at Evelo Biosciences are now identifying natural microbes that modulate the immune system and offer therapeutic management of cancers, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Of the 36 million people worldwide on the path to blindness, 4/5 can be easily treated with corrective lenses or cataract surgery. Andrew Bastawrous from Peek Vision discussed his personal experience setting up eye clinics across Kenya, where he noticed one constant feature regardless of how remote each location was: extensive mobile phone usage. Andrew and the team at Peek developed a smart phone app capable of diagnosing visual impairment with clinical accuracy for users with almost no training. The technology has been pioneered in rural schools and vaccination centers throughout Kenya. The countrywide rollout of the technology in Kenya has also offered insight into how and why patients fall through the gaps in healthcare systems—whether they live Kenya or Kentucky.
Claire Novorol from AI-driven diagnostic app Ada introduced the audience to the reality of medical treatment for half of the world’s population: hours of queuing for minutes, and sometimes seconds, of time with a doctor. Faced with a worldwide shortage of clinicians that will take generations to remedy through increased training numbers, the team at Ada have created a decision support app that aids diagnosis with simple questions about symptoms. The system is used by a patient every 4 seconds worldwide and allows doctors to “do more with less” by focusing expertise where it is needed in the diagnostic pipeline.
Medical Realities cofounder Shafi Ahmed gave a glimpse of the future of clinician training with a charge that we must train doctors to be future-proof and both innovative and flexible. Shafi’s mission of increasing worldwide access to surgery and medical training is enabled with many innovative tools, including social media streaming, VR-enabled operating theaters and even the possibility of “Holoporting” into a surgery on the other side of the world after a “call for help.”
CEO of BenevolentBio Jackie Hunter continued the AI journey of the day with a showcase of the company’s drug discovery platform, which synthesizes data from over 200 million publications. The Benevolent Bio system aims to make drug discovery more successful and reduce the staggering average $2 billion it currently takes to deliver a new drug to market. With a super-human knowledge graph of over 1.3 billion entries, the system can infer new, complex relationships from existing data and begin to open up drug discovery and development to truly personalized medicine.
Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College, introduced often-neglected research that could offer a more positive future for the quarter of the adult population who suffer with mental health conditions. Robin’s ground-breaking research offers an alternative to traditional medications for depression treatment (SSRIs) by using psilocybin therapy—the psychedelic ingredient of so-called “magic mushrooms”—integrated with calming music. The therapy has grown in popularity in the past decade and shows great promise by “resetting the mind in a healthy way.” It is built around collapsing negative beliefs and assumptions that may be at the heart of depressive episodes.
Romain Pizzi offered a point of reflection with his pioneering work as a veterinary surgeon who has operated on some of the world’s rarest animals—often saving them from extinction. With his numerous accolades, including performing the first brain surgery on a bear, Romain enthralled the audience with accounts of pushing both medicine and human understanding to their limits. Over the course of his career, he has noted an almost complete lack of many ‘diseases of excess’ in our closest animal relatives, pointing to a striking conclusion that many healthcare problems are self-imposed by poor diet and lack of exercise.
Later, Michael Hornberger talked about the neuroscience behind the Sea Hero Quest game, which is being used to create vast datasets of cognitive ability that are then utilized to diagnose dementia decades before any symptoms. With a predicted tripling of dementia cases worldwide by 2050, the data that Michael and his team have gathered from over 3.7 million 18-95-year olds could unlock a cure for dementia by uncovering proteins linked to subtle changes in brain structure.
Jack Kreindler and Jess Mills, daughter of Baroness Tessa Jowell, brought the event to a poignant close with reflections on how Tessa’s diagnosis and public battle with Glioblastoma Multiforme has spurred her to push for more equitable cancer treatment. The mission of the organisation founded by the trio, ACT (Adaptive Collaborative Treatments), is to offer more patients—and especially those without financial means or influential advocates—access to emerging oncology therapies that could drastically lengthen their lives. Jess finished the day with her mother’s inspiring words: “I want a world where we can live well together with cancer and not just die of it.”