Charting New Territories in Health and Medicine

When it comes to the future of health and medicine, the newest and boldest ideas often seem like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie. From genetically modified organisms to artificial intelligence at the doctor’s office, the latest research and headlines are generating feelings of excitement for some people—and unsettled feelings for others. At TEDMED 2017, we will feature Speakers and Innovators who are working on cutting edge endeavors that are not only pushing boundaries, but that are also bringing with them the potential for tremendous change and advancement in the fields of health and medicine.

Karen Hogan and her fellow co-founders at BioRealize wanted to help more people solve problems using biology, but they had to clear some major hurdles first. For one, designing genetically modified organisms is typically limited to people with biology degrees—due in part to the complex and tedious lab operations that usually accompany the work. Also, standard lab equipment is expensive, meaning that access to established labs and research centers is required in order to work with GMOs. BioRealize’s solution: the Microbial Design Studio, a biofabrication machine that makes it possible for anyone to design, culture, and test genetically modified organisms. Using this new platform, the design and fabrication processes are streamlined and automated, and users are able to harness the full capabilities of a biology wetlab in an affordable, countertop piece of hardware. This user-friendly platform is also networked, facilitating increased collaboration and allowing people to run experiments in parallel as a means to test and validate reproducibility.

While making biology more accessible to all seems like something everyone could get on board with, next-generation “accessible biocompanies, such as BioRealize, have been met with some resistance and fear around the issue of allowing people outside of universities and corporations to experiment with GMOs. Despite this resistance, the team at BioRealize maintains that making biology more accessible—and introducing diversity into the field—is crucial if we are going to design the next generation applications of biology and meet the challenges of the future.

LabGenius CEO James Field shares this point of view. He and his team are also paving the way for new biological advancements, therapies, and discoveries. However, instead of focusing on research performed by people, LabGenius is empowering EVA—the company’s artificial intelligence-driven evolution engine—to unlock a new wave of bio-augmented materials using AI and a library of synthetic DNA. They are building EVA to be capable of designing, constructing, and empirically testing trillions of unique genetic designs until she finds a high performing synthetic DNA sequence to test in living organisms.

Using this new approach, LabGenius and EVA are developing new and advanced biomaterials that they believe have the potential to address multiple high-value challenges—such as curing previously incurable diseases. Additionally, since EVA is automated and runs on a closed-loop approach, developing new biological products gets progressively easier over time, expanding the pace and scope of invention, which is a benefit to all. The team understands that for many, the idea that life can be altered in a lab may already be controversial—and that adding machine-learning robots into the mix will certainly be grounds for interesting debate. However, they’re embracing EVA’s ability to yield new and exciting bio-materials, which may ultimately help us humans to solve some of our most challenging health problems.

The potential for artificial intelligence to bring major advancements to health and medicine extends beyond the lab. Enlitic is using deep learning artificial intelligence to build solutions that make doctors faster and more accurate. COO and Lead Scientist Kevin Lyman helps the company to design deep learning networks that draw upon the world’s growing collection of medical data—comprised of things like patient histories, lab tests, and medical images—in order to distill actionable insights that can improve the accuracy of medical diagnoses, as well as accessibility and patient outcomes. It might sound like this type of technology is designed to replace doctors and radiologists. However, the company’s solutions are designed to support healthcare teams by giving them the insight of billions of clinical cases and helping them to access the collective intelligence of the global medical community. Enlitic’s solutions help doctors help you—by using it, they’ll be able to detect diseases sooner, which will allow for earlier diagnoses and pave the way for the development of novel courses of treatment.

Greg Corrado, co-founder of Google Brain and a Principal Scientist at Google, also believes pairing doctors with artificial intelligence has the potential to make both stronger. A former neuroscientist, Greg develops products that put AI to work. For example, machine learning computers are taught to do repetitive tasks like sorting objects into categories, and they are then corrected by humans and learn from their mistakes. Greg is investigating ways to apply this technology to medicine in a way that makes physicians more efficient at similarly routinized medical tasks, which could help achieve better health outcomes for all.

Among the possibilities that Greg envisions are AI systems that help physicians more efficiently update and sort through electronic medical records, assist with diagnostics, support clinical decision making, and even help out with writing a doctor’s note or billing. Greg’s hope is that these technologies will act as powerful “force multipliers” for doctors, benefitting providers and patients alike.

The future of healthcare is exciting; but advancements like these come with heavy ethical baggage. As a bioethicist and a Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Alta Charo helps decipher a path forward as society struggles with balancing the potentially life-saving benefits of scientific advances with the unsettling sense of the unknown that they often bring. For instance, in 2017, Alta was part of a committee appointed by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine to make recommendations on the ethics of human gene editing. The committee addressed the issue of editing genes in human reproductive cells, ultimately advising that gene editing should only be permitted if it’s being used to prevent a serious disease or disability for which there aren’t any treatments. Controversy surrounding scientific progress has occurred throughout history, and Alta works to help tackle the difficult but important questions around how we as a society should respond when faced with these dilemmas.

From designing GMOs outside of the lab to embracing AI to help improve patient outcomes—not to mention the ethical dilemmas that surround such endeavors—the coming years and decades are sure to bring extraordinary changes and challenges to the fields of health and medicine. These Speakers and Innovators are paving the way towards this unknown future, and they are having to navigate new roads to make it a reality. Join us at TEDMED 2017 and hear directly from these thought-leaders on how their work is surpassing limits and helping to create a healthier future for all.