Biotech is a complex field full of futuristic promise—a fusion of man and machine, like Iron Man without all the weaponry. But the goal is simple. "You want to have something within you that says, 'Everything is okay,'" says Tufts University biomedical engineering professor Fiorenzo Omenetto.
Getting the best data from "within you" is something that is being tackled by startups and large brands across the biotech field. Many are developing biomonitoring tools, which have the potential to revolutionize medicine by providing patients (and their doctors) with exponentially more data about their bodies, often in real time. At its most powerful, this feedback could alert people to health issues before they become serious, or even fatal.
Here are three companies at the forefront of the biomonitoring movement.
For putting a GPS in every pill you swallow
The future of medical care revealed itself to Andrew Thompson in a divided landscape—at the trade show at the American Heart Association's annual meeting in Orlando, Florida. "The medical-device companies had small spaces full of computer screens; they seemed to have almost universally caught on to the idea that information collected from devices could be presented on flat screens and used to influence therapy," he says. "The pharmaceuticals are much richer companies, so they had much larger spaces. But there was nothing in them except a cappuccino machine."
Thompson saw the opportunity to bridge the two, bringing the device companies' love of data display to Big Pharma. The result is his startup, Proteus Digital Health. Last July, the FDA approved its ingestible sensor—something the size of a grain of sand and powered by stomach acid. Swallow one with every medicine pill, and it will relay valuable information to your smartphone, tracking your intake schedule and how a drug affects your body. Thompson expects it to eventually be embedded directly within pharmaceutical products.
The benefit may be considerable. A New England Journal of Medicine study estimated that failure to follow prescribed care costs the nation at least $100 billion a year. But patients who adhere to their medication schedule refill their prescriptions more promptly. That's why many drug companies signed on to participate in Proteus's new program, MedMatch: When patients take their pills regularly, the companies donate drugs to people who can't afford them. "Patients like it because instead of the drug company controlling them and saying, 'You have to take your pills,' patients get to say, 'You have to give away your pills,'" Thompson says. And everyone gets healthier.
For bringing design to your blood sugar monitor
Nobody wants to carry around a medical device, but San Diego-based Dexcom is at least making the task palatable: It treats continuous glucose monitors (CGMs)—which monitor diabetics' blood sugar levels via a sensor placed under the skin of the abdomen—as if they're lifestyle products, designing them to look like sleek flip cams. Sales of the devices helped Dexcom's revenue grow 42% in the second quarter of 2012, from the same period a year earlier, to $21.5 million. In October, the FDA approved Dexcom's newest line, the 2.4-ounce G4 Platinum, which the company claims is up to 30% more accurate than its previous version. It offers a color LCD display and customizable alerts—the medical version of ringtones.
For many diabetics, CGMs have replaced the traditional finger prick, in which they drain a drop of blood onto a test strip. (Diabetic patients must control their blood sugar at all times in order to stave off serious complications such as blindness, neuropathy, or even a diabetic coma.) CGMs could help cut the estimated $174 billion cost of diabetes to our health care system by reducing complications. Next up, CGMs may become social—sending messages to parents or spouses if a patient is at risk, bringing down yet another barrier to medical transparency.
For making an ultrasound for your whole body
GE Healthcare has long been the No. 1 seller of ultrasound devices in the world, but a quarter of those sales are now of a lesser-known variety. It's a laptop-size machine called Logiq, so light and portable that a sports doctor at a football game can peer inside an athlete's body mere moments after an injury. "Many things, when treated early, can remain minor issues," says Paul Mullen, chief marketing officer for GE Healthcare's ultrasound division. That explains why Logiq has become a favored tool of sports doctors in the NFL and MLB. It's even used at events such as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
GE is regularly releasing new versions of Logiq. The latest includes the ability to watch needles inside the body during injections—especially key with athletes who have just taken a tumble, when an injured area may be swollen. Last year, GE gave Logiq a visibility boost through its sponsorship of the Olympics, where it displayed just how flexible a device like this can be: It was retrofitted to scan horses for injuries at the site of equestrian competitions.
Illustration by Guyco