WIRED Health, now in its sixth year, returned to London’s Francis Crick Institute. The event was opened by Crick Institute director Paul Nurse who introduced the institute and its mission to understand the fundamental biology of human health and disease. The team at the Crick, consisting of 1500 researchers and three Nobel Prize winners, make up Europe’s largest biomedical research facility with an already impressive slate of research, despite being only two years old. The theme of WIRED Heath and the venue’s vision was perfectly summarized by Sir Paul, who closed his address with the charge “from this crucible the discoveries of the future will come.”
Openwater CEO Mary Lou Jepsen led the morning’s talks with the showcasing of her company’s light-based imaging technology, which is capable of capturing brain vasculature and detecting tumors. Openwater’s vision is to democratize safe and cheap diagnostic imaging in a world where three-quarters of the population does not have accessm due to scanner and equipment costs running thousands to millions of dollars. Enabled by exponential increases in sensor microchip performance, Mary Lou’s team utilizes ultrasound-guided near-infrared holography to detect pathological changes in fat, muscle, and tissue. This creates an imaging protocol that costs less than a dollar to implement and that has no cancer risk from ionizing radiation.
Poppy Crum, a neurophysiologist from Dolby Labs challenged the crowd to find optimization, autonomy, and greater freedom from the increased abundance of sensors in our lives. By utilizing the detailed and personalized data streams from sensors, the Dolby team hopes to adapt technology to individual needs and begin the journey of understanding the radically different mental responses we each experience to identical stimuli. In a talk that drew on Hollywood movies and resonating spiders, Poppy shared fascinating work on how our brains subconsciously work in groups. These findings have huge implications for effective medical treatment and can even help us understand other kinds of social behavior, such as why there is something magical about seeing a show with an audience.
Descending into the inhospitable and uncharted territory of caves has given Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham a unique perspective on the world’s vast population of microorganisms. We are living through the “perfect microbial storm” of global travel that transports bacteria across vast distances, and leaves cross-species infections and antibiotic resistance looming on the horizon. Against this backdrop, Ann and her team are discovering new organisms, thriving in environments otherwise thought toxic, that could hold the key to the novel antimicrobial therapies of the future. Her talk closed with a poignant reminder of the fundamental link between human, animal, and environmental health, and how new understanding can benefit us all.
The first session of the day ended with Dean Mohamedally, from UCL Computer Science, showcasing projects that resulted from matching computer science students’ skills with Great Ormond Street Hospital clinicians who have a vision but don’t know how to build or create a solution. With a mission of future-ready and open data built on a foundation of interoperability, the UCL computer science team has been involved in healthcare projects as diverse as bed allocation systems, smartphone app accessibility, real-time sensing IoT, and chatbots for trainees and clinicians.
Throughout the day, a parallel EY Health Access Stage hosted founders pitching a diverse range of exciting start-up companies addressing dementia detection, providing low cost ultrasound, improving menstrual health, and aiding those with visual impairment. Networking breaks were filled with demonstrations of emerging technology, rapid in-vitro diagnostics, wearables, and even a chance to tour the blood vasculature, where participants could battle cardiovascular risks in virtual reality.
The morning continued with the world’s most watched surgeon—Shafi Ahmed—sharing his experiences of healthcare education and implementation in Bolivia. The story of Bolivia’s vision to build a future-focused healthcare system that is more efficient and equitable is inspiring, despite the country having some of the most limited healthcare resources in the world. Shafi is now the namesake of soon-to-open hospital in Bolivia, that has been designed from the ground up to increase healthcare access with technology and to begin to realize healthcare as a right.
By representing basic molecules in high-dimensional models of function, shape, and properties, Noor Shaker and her start-up company, GTN, are using AI to rapidly accelerate the process of drug discovery at a fraction of current costs. GTN’s team of quantum mechanics and video game and machine learning experts has already “discovered” commercially available molecules from first principles in a matter of days.
Austin Burt and his lab at Imperial College are setting themselves the task of genetically engineering the perfect mosquito to tackle one of the world’s greatest heath burdens: malaria. By leveraging the commonplace biological processes of selfish genes—DNA repair and reproduction—the team is pioneering a genetic innovation built on the same principles as a vaccine. If Burt’s lab’s models of how these mutations will spread in the populations of mosquitoes near African villages are correct, there could be 99% reduction in mosquito population in only handful of insect generations. After extensive field testing, the team hopes to deploy the innovation as one of the tools that helps eradicate malaria.
Paola Bonfanti from the Crick Institute ended the first half of the day with a talk covering the history and state-of-art of stem cell research. Paola drew an arc from the first cell therapy (blood transfusions) and the first stem cell therapy (bone marrow transplants) that saved millions of lives, to the incredible contemporary techniques that are capable of regenerating entire organs. She shared the impressive results of a lab grown esophagus that was then successfully implanted into a mouse; raising the possibility of personalized implants that trigger no immune reaction and are capable of growing along with growing children.
Over lunch EY and networking breaks throughout the day, the EY Health Access Stage also hosted a number of excellent panel discussions on hot topics in biotech and medicine, including the aging population, the future of cell therapy, and the challenges of personalized medicine underpinned by big data. The afternoon sessions began with a fireside chat, where Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies shared wisdom based on her career as both a practicing clinician and national policy maker. In a discussion that covered Dame Sally’s key role in founding both Genomics England and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), as well as her experience with anti-vaxers, public health, and fake news, she charged the audience to “be bold…but be based on good science.”
Moorfields Eye Hospital and Google DeepMind representatives Pearse Keane and Alan Karthikesalingam took this theme of boldness into their talk with a live demonstration of the AI-enabled diagnostic platform they have developed for macular diseases, a leading cause of blindness worldwide. As one of the busiest ophthalmology centres in the world, Moorfields produces an average of 1,000 diagnostic retinal scans a day, which presented a huge challenge to both efficient diagnosis and sufficient clinician-patient contact time. This large volume of data did, however, present the ideal foundation for an automated diagnostic aid, based on neural networks, that can distinguish the clinically urgent from the mundane with the same accuracy as a specialist with twenty years’ experience.
The session closed with the big picture perspectives of Martin Cowie and Jane Metcalfe. Martin, a cardiologist at Imperial College, encouraged the audience to invest in their vascular health with a tour of the risk factors underpinning otherwise-invisible cardiovascular disease. He also shared exciting research suggesting that repurposed common medications could be used to control inflammation response in the vascular system and reduce long-term risk of stroke and heart attack. Jane, founder of WIRED magazine and latest venture NEO.LIFE, gave a glimpse of what the future of humanity may look like with longevity hacking and genome editing challenging the paradigm of when repairing our bodies strays into manipulating them in the interest of improvement and enhancement.
The final session of the day was opened by Karyn McCluskey (Community Justice Scotland), who shared Scotland’s experience of being the first country in the world to declare violence a public health concern. By approaching the problem of violence in this way, and starting from the premise that life chances are not created equally, Karyn has led a program to interrupt the spread of violence, change the behavior of those involved, and create a new normal of a violence-free environment. The results of the program speak for themselves, and they were bolstered by Karyn’s infectious enthusiasm to improve people’s lives at every level—to live a day-to-day that is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful.
Professor of immunology and best-selling author Daniel Davis introduced the audience to the historic building blocks of the immune system and the immunotherapy revolution that we are set to experience in our lifetimes. Working from the premise of what actually triggers an immune response in the body, Daniel shared fascinating research on immune cells receptors and antibodies that can be harnessed to create new and more effective cancer treatments. The scope of such treatments and number of emerging technologies are both vast and stretch beyond cancer to autoimmune diseases.
Samiya Parvez from Andiamo told the story of how her late son Diamo’s experiences of poorly designed orthotics spurred Samiya and her husband Naveed to start 3D-printing patient-specific braces and other orthotic devices. Andiamo’s creations are lighter and fit better than common current devices. They are also produced rapidly enough that children have not had the chance to grow out of the device originally measured for them, a common problem with current orthotics. Samiya’s touching personal story and Andiamo’s mission to help all children globally with their orthotic needs underscored her message to the audience: empathy creates radical disruption.
The session was energetically and entertainingly closed by Rory Sutherland from Ogilvy, who shared his experiences from the advertising world of how to effectively transform the way people think and act. Challenging the audience to consider the positive power of placebos in medicine, Rory also asked the provocative question: when it comes to getting humans to act in ways beneficial for their health, do we care if they’re doing it for the “right” reasons?
The exciting and feature-packed day ended with the announcement of Erin Smith, founder of FacePrint, as the start-up pitch winner. Erin, a teen entrepreneur hailing from Kansas, wowed the audience with her innovative idea of using emotional distance when smiling and laughing as a biomarker for early onset of Parkinson’s disease. Erin’s app is now in development, having completed an initial survey to gather data on facial expression response to differentiated between diseased states.
WIRED Health returns to the Francis Crick Institute on March 25thand 26th 2020.