Medtronic Sees a High-Tech Solution to Global Health Woes

Sensors and smartphones could give 4 billion people access to health care

2 min read
Medtronic Sees a High-Tech Solution to Global Health Woes
Medtronic's next-gen pacemaker points the way to tiny implantable sensors and therapeutic devices.
Photo: Medtronic

human os icon

If you believe that health care is a human right, as does Stephen Oesterle, Medtronic's VP of medicine and technology, you need to look for global health solutions that scale up. "We can't build enough hospitals or train enough physicians to take care of all these people," Oesterle says. The answer, he says, is a distributed model of medicine in which we put sensors in people's bodies and "a physician in every phone."

Medtronic is known for making pacemakers, brain implants, and other sophisticated medical devices that cost a pretty penny and are therefore primarily available to patients in the developed world. That's a market of about 1.5 billion people, Oesterle said in a talk at last week's meeting of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Another 1.5 billion people around the world have access to some rudimentary heath care, and 4 billion others have none. Oesterle is calling on engineers to design the tech that will bring medical care to these masses.

In a conversation with Spectrum, Oesterle elaborated on his vision. He says that he drew inspiration from a visit to a hospital in Chengdu, the capital city of China's Sichuan province. The hospital (pictured at right) is the world's largest with 8000 beds, and it's being enlarged to reach a total of 12,000 beds. And then there are the outpatients: 4.5 million of them each year. "People take trains across western China and queue up all day to get one minute with the doctor," Oesterle says. He thinks it would simply be better medicine to distribute diagnostic and therapeutic technologies to all these people where they live.

Such a system would be enabled by implanted and wearable sensors that can monitor vital signs and metrics of chronic ailments like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. These sensors would send continuous streams of data to a phone or to the cloud for automatic analysis, and any red flags could trigger alerts for the patient or an off-site physician. The alert could even trigger an implanted therapeutic device to deliver a dose of medicine or a jolt of electricity.

While many people think of infectious disease as the biggest heath threat in the developing world, non-communicable diseases are actually the most frequent causes of death everywhere except Africa, and their prevalence on that continent is increasing rapidly. The World Health Organization reports that 80 percent of deaths from non-communicative diseases occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Medtronic's work on pacemakers points the way toward other implantable therapeutic devices, Oesterle says. The company's engineers have already built an experimental, next-gen pacemaker that's smaller than Abraham Lincoln's head on the penny (pictured above). Such an implant "could go anywhere," Oesterle says, and electrical stimulation could potentially treat a number of conditions (see the slide below). "Everything in the body is electrically active, and we know we can modulate these systems," he says. "This is something electrical engineers can solve—so get busy."

The Conversation (0)

This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less