Over a million and a half Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and about a third of them will die—roughly 1,600 people a day. Most research today focuses on the many whose problems were diagnosed late—improving surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Yet the fact remains, cancer detected late is almost always fatal, but those caught early are highly curable. But right now, our cancer-detecting methods are the biological equivalent of hide-and-seek.
Riley Ennis thinks this is a data problem. He is the founder of Immudicon, a body monitoring technology startup building software that tracks proteins indicative of chronic diseases. He wants to build a diagnostic platform, but that would be expensive. Instead, he’s looking at the trends for body monitoring more in devices like the Nike Fit, and hopes for a widely accessible solution.
Ennis believes the next logical extension of bracelets and watches which track our bodily analytics is a body-implanted device tracking every single change inside of us. This astronomical amount of data would make it possible to stop cancer before it even has the chance to become a tumor. Simply put, the more body data you have, the earlier you can tell when something’s not working right. We sat down with Ennis to learn how this could work.
What kind of monitoring would an implant like this do?
Real-time monitoring is the 24-7 monitoring of the symptomatic and biochemical events occurring in all patients, to provide real-time cradle-to-grave recommendations and actionable information for patients.
What exactly are you building?
We’re actually building an infrastructure to maintain a lot of the data across diseases. A lot of companies specify on breast cancer, lung cancer, et cetera. We’re in but we’re cross-referencing data in order to provide actionable information and maintain all the data across diseases. What we say is in 10 [or] 20 years, everyone is going to have a device implanted inside of them that can detect what is in their blood. If we’re getting to that point in 20 years, and everyone has a thing inside of them, the amount of data that is going to be flowing into the system is astronomical and it could provide much value to somebody who has a disease inside of them that is only beginning to develop and at a terminable point. You need very strong software infrastructure to maintain process and output, but this is the idea of real-time monitoring.
Can you talk a little more about big data in medicine and real-time monitoring?
Innovation continues to drive down the cost of diagnostics and patient analytical tools such as DNA sequencing, proteomics, and an understanding of cell-free nucleic acids and other circulating nucleic acids. As these costs continue to fall, these tests will become a regular part of the patient routine, and all the data collated from these tests needs to be maintained and sorted for us to better monitor disease trends, detect diseases earlier, and personalize patient treatment plans. Machine learning algorithms and large cloud space would enable such an infrastructure.
How can you get biomedical and software people together on something like this?
Biomed is too disease-focused, and we must move away from diseases and build scalable platforms to personalize diagnostics, treatment, and patient monitoring. Technological innovations in data analytics and processing will allow us to do that. Doctors cannot possibly do all the literature analysis and clinical research on every single patient, but empowering the physician with software that can scan all relevant clinical data and research will revolutionize how we approach health care.
What triggered your passion for this?
My sister had a heart condition called tetralogy of fallot and had to go through surgery as a baby. Then she had to go through surgery again in middle school, and watching innovation and medical devices and implants impact her life is one of the milestones that led me here. Doctors would say, "innovation is what is saving your sister." I think that is pretty powerful and it got me really excited about it because medicine is one of the few industries where directly you’re impacting people and their lives and that’s a really cool thing, it’s very powerful in terms of enabling individuals to work really hard because you know what you’re doing in benefitting people.
What’s the bigger picture here?
To actually lower costs, there needs to be technology and innovation. That is what we need to focus on from a policy perspective. For example, if we’re just making insurance better, radiation better, you’re not going to change the industry at all. There needs to be technology which will lower cost. Young people can push forward these ideas, and think about how to move the industry in this direction without increasing cost. Instead of creating new laws, instead of Obamacare, this is what will really get prices down. We need to be thinking a different way. Biotech and pharmacy are so ingrained in the science it’s difficult to get outside of that thinking box. My philosophy lies in completely rethinking how we approach medicine. It’s like taking little steps so that we may one day arrive at a real-time monitoring process.
[Image: Flickr user Ziggy Creative Colony]