Is that really possible?

Sometimes, a picture (and definitely a video) is worth far more words than I can write in a blog post. It was not that long ago that the only way to experience any conference was to travel to the conference site and then try to personally get to every one of the most interesting (to you) lectures available. And if two interesting lectures were being presented at the same time, then you were simply out of luck.

Today, like so many others, I can sit back in my chair and listen to hour after hour of the top conference lectures from around the world. Many conference lectures are now taped and posted on the Internet. While even Facebook and LinkedIn still do not totally reproduce the experience of meeting a colleague face to face and then discussing a lecture that you have both just heard, social media come pretty close. And sometimes, because you do have the time to sit back and listen (and re-listen) to a lecture, you can spend as much time as you want, spread out over days, discussing the significance of this lecture with your colleagues via social media. Of course, when 3D and total sensory immersion create the complete experience of sitting next to a colleague, then it will be interesting to see how this affects conference attendance (but that is another discussion).

The video below is from the Stanford Medicine 2014 Spotlight Presentations, at the TEDMED Innovation Reception. This is a 50 minute video but, in my opinion, worth the time. It is not just about the topics discussed, but also about the passion with which they are discussed.

I do present here a quick summary of some of the topics discussed in this video. But really, it is worth listening to the original.

It used to be that married couples in the States, would need to do a blood test before getting married. This test was actually for Syphilis and the purpose of the test was to prevent the spread of the disease. Syphilis is still around, but couples are no longer required to take the test. But new blood tests are offering more and more information to people (married and not).

A relatively new blood test can eliminate the need for performing an amniocentesis. An amniocentesis is an invasive test intended to identify genetic abnormalities during an early pregnancy. Based on the results, some couples may decide to (legally) abort the pregnancy. Amniocentesis does carry a small risk which is not insignificant. The new blood test can eliminate this risk and the anxiety and discomfort that go along with the amniocentesis. This type of blood test is a godsend for many pregnant women.

When a patient has received a transplanted organ, he/she must begin a lifelong vigil to track any signs of rejection of that organ. When a person receives an organ from someone who is NOT genetically identical to him/her, even with special medications available today, there is always the risk that the recipient’s body will attack the transplanted organ and destroy it. It is possible to add other medications for a short time that further suppress this destructive reaction. But these additional medications have their own risks, and should only be used when necessary.

How does one know if a person is presently experiencing such a “rejection” of the new organ? In the past, one would have to do an invasive test to assess this. This involved discomfort, pain and as always, the possibility of complications. There is now a new blood test that can assess for signs of rejection. Once again, replacing a previously invasive and somewhat risky test with a simple blood test is a miracle for the patients.

Injuries to our bodies often leave some type of scar (external or internal). Very few of our adult organs can regenerate significantly. For example, if you must remove part of a lung for cancer, it does not grow back. But when we were first developing in the womb of our mothers, we did form all of our organs from single cells. How come we cannot do the same as adults?

The key seems to lie in a unique kind of cell that we call a stem cell. These cells have the potential to transform into any number of tissues and organs in our bodies. But they need to be signalled to do so. There has been tremendous research (and early successes) with stem cells. In the near term, we will likely treat injuries with stem cells and specialized hormones, called growth factors, that will literally regenerate the tissues and organs we have lost. Such stem cells may even be used for rejuvenating purposes. The changes that happen to our body with age may be reversible with the use of stem cells. It would be the ultimate face lift.

Another topic discussed in the video above relates to “repurposing” existing data for new studies. The idea is very simple. When researchers collect data in a study, they do so as part of a plan to prove (or disprove) a theory. When the study is over, the data is not destroyed, but is virtually filed away. But what if there are other secrets lurking within that data, that we did not even think to ask? More so, what if you take all of the data from all of the researchers (after they have published their results) and combine it, to form a single huge data store? The likelihood of finding hidden jewels increases.

Specialists in analyzing data, called Data Scientists, are using such data to find things like unexpected and new uses for a medication that already exists. There are definitely issues to overcome when analyzing data in this way. But in the end, repeat data analysis of existing data could discover a whole new use for an existing medication.Sometimes, the finding was considered a side effect of a new medication being tested. But a side effect for one person can be a major benefit for another. Discovering a new use for a medication in such a way could literally save billions of dollars in research and experimentation.

The next speaker in the video spoke of “physiosensing devices”. These devices allow for brain signals to be analyzed, with the specific intent of discovering abnormal patterns of activity (almost like an ECG for the brain). The hope is to use such technology to identify diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Depression but at very early stages. The earlier you can detect such diseases, the greater the hope that treatments will be able to slow or even stop their progression. This treatment phase is still far off. But you can’t treat something until you can measure it. And that is why such technology is so critical.

The last part of the presentations that I will review was about “personal microbiomes” and modifying them (genetically) to achieve better health. When I was a medical student, if I had suggested that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacteria, I would have been laughed out of medical school. Today, not testing to identify the presence of ulcer causing bacteria, before starting antacid therapies, would be considered malpractice. Over the last 30 years, medical research has discovered that a number of diseases are somehow related to bacteria. Of late, there has been a great deal of talk around a set of bacteria that must reside in our bowels to preserve health. And this is called our personal microbiome.

By the way, I think it should already be clear that this discovery has tremendous significance when talking about the overuse of antibiotics. When antibiotics are necessary, they should be used. But when they are given for non-medical reasons (like the insistence of the patient or the misdiagnosis by the doctor), all that the antibiotics do is cause side effects. And one of those side effects could be to kill the healthy bacteria that live in our guts. Disrupting the normal microbiome may soon be recognized as a key source of morbidity for millions of people.

How far off is all of this technology? The predictions heard on the video above speak of 10 years from now. JUST 10 years. And even if the prediction is overzealous, even 20 years is very little time to wait for such medical miracles to become commonplace.

I leave you with one more video which brought me to tears. The world of bionics (tech meshed with human tissue) has been a dream for millions of people ever since the first episode of the Six Million Dollar Man aired. But in the video below, a very high tech bionic leg brings a dancer’s dream to life.

I wish you all that your dreams should be fulfilled in this new year.

Thanks for listening.


About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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