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Insideables, poop pills & immunotherapy: the possible future of healthcare

The future of healthcare is a multifaceted concept, especially when you drag biological, technological and social advancements into the fray. But at last night’s Future of Health event hosted by SingularityU at Cape Town’s Workshop17, three experts in their respective fields tore the tough skin from its esoteric exterior.

Next Biosciences’ CEO Kim Hulett, MhlangaLab founder Dr Musa Mhlanga, and Discovery’s deputy CEO Dr Ryan Noach shed some light on the future of the healthcare, medical and genetics sectors, getting down to its futuristic, fleshy core.

And that core is indeed fleshy. So fleshy in fact, that this piece could easily be well over 3000 words. But for the sake of brevity, here are just some of the key takeaways from last night’s Future of Health event.

Note: a sister event is taking place in Johannesburg tonight, 6 April 2017. Find more details here.

Gene editing technology will transform healthcare

Healthcare is currently a reactive process rather than a proactive one, Kim Hulett explained, but that is set to change drastically over the next few years.

“It’s not long before everyone will have their genomes sequenced,” she predicts.

Advances in genetic engineering will allow human beings to pick and choose strong genes, or completely remove ailments entirely, through DNA editing. With the likes of CRISPR, Hulett explains, human beings might even be able to engineer super humans and designer babies — both highly contentious concepts.

Instead of tending to the sick, healthcare through genetic engineering will soon evolve to negating the notion of “sickness” entirely. But of course, there’s the obvious a risk of creating “future Frankenstein monsters”, Hulett warned.

Reproductive genetic technologies, like carrier screening, will allow users to consider different options that will increase the chance of conceiving a healthy baby. Selecting healthy embryos, screening chromosomes for possible hereditary diseases and banking stem cells post-birth are some of the technologies that may be more prominent in the future.

Healthcare will become more social with patients leading doctors

A future more close to the present is one that puts the patient at the centre of the system.

Wearables, sensors and technologies like smartphones collects and curates patient data on the fly in today’s world, but will also soon allow humans to interact with doctors without being physically present.

‘We are moving from disability to super ability’

The likes of HealthTap — a platform that could arrive on Discovery’s portfolio in the coming year, Dr Ryan Hoach revealed — allows patients to communicate with doctors in a social setting. Think of it as the Google Assistant of healthcare.

More information from wearables, and the increase in the availability of data will allow professionals, and technologies like artificial intelligence, to develop more precise patient care.

Immunotherapy: re-engineered T-cells could be the key to cancer treatment

According to Dr Musa Mhlangu, cancer treatment of the future could involve using re-programmed and re-engineered versions of patients’ own T-cells (the blood’s policemen), to ward off cancer cells.

Dr Mhlangu explains that cancer is largely the result of the immune system’s inability to control wayward cells. But that’s not always the “decision matrix” of cancer treatments. But new research suggests that this type of treatment might be possible in the future.

“The immune system sits at the centre of cancer. And the deregulation of the immune system is really why we get cancer,” he adds.

“We’re in the early days of immunotherapy. We have a class of immune cells, called T-cells, which are able to see tumours.”

T-cells are able to kill the tumour, but over time, the tumour can pretend to be healthy cells. Re-engineering the T-cells may ultimately aid in the “unmasking” and destruction of tumours.

The treatment isn’t without risks though. Initial trials saw 30% of patients dying due to blood sepsis, but that number has since dropped, Mhlangu noted.

Ultimately, he theorises that similar therapy approaches could be used against other ailments, like HIV.

Forget wearables, “insideables” could be the next big thing

Wearable sales figures are set to increase in Africa and the Middle East in 2017, but “insideables” might be an entirely new industry itself.

Literally being wearables for the body’s interior and laden with sensors, insideables could help doctors detect initial signs of tumours within human beings, or simply allow them to explore your inner workings.

Similar tech already exists. The likes of Google and Novartis’ glucose-measuring contact lenses is a solid example of a device that infiltrates the human body to provide the likes of doctors with more granular information.

‘It’s not long before everyone will have their genomes sequenced’

Hulett also spoke of devices ingested by patients in pill-form that can monitor “your insides and dispense drugs when needed”.

“Mobile devices are becoming medical devices,” she added, “enabling point of care diagnostics and remote monitoring by doctors”.

‘Faecal transplants’ might be the holy grail of weight loss

Hulett, and Dr Mhlangu explained that the ecosystem of our bodily microorganisms is set to become the next big area of focus for medical professionals in the coming years.

The human microbiome, or “second genome” is a collective of bacteria cells that outnumber human cells ten to one, Hulett revealed.

Your microbiome, of which the largest concentration is found in the human gut, “helps you adapt to your surroundings, protect against harmful organisms, fights off infection, aids in food digestion, affects your metabolism and even affects your brain”, she added.

It might not sound like bacteria is the key to human life, but studies suggest that these microbes are the key to the likes of weight gain and weight loss. Faecal transplants, packed in pill form, are being used to replace microbes of diseased patients with those from healthy human beings.

Yep, poop transplants.

“Microbes are the pharmaceuticals of the century,” Mhlangu concluded.

Memeburn is SingularityU Cape Town and Johannesburg Chapters’ official media partner.

Author | Andy Walker: Editor

Andy Walker: Editor
Camper by day, run-and-gunner by night, Andy prefers his toast like his coffee -- dark and crunchy. Specialising in spotting the next big Instagram cat star, Andy also dabbles in smartphone and game reviews over on Gearburn. More