New Solutions to Old Health Problems

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We’ve all heard this famous quote, and you’ve probably heard it applied to a range of different situations. When it comes to health and medicine, it definitely rings true. In order to move past limits and find new solutions, we have to be willing to reassess the old way of doing something and be open to approaching problems from fresh, new angles. That’s exactly what these six TEDMED 2017 Speakers and Innovators are doing—they’re confronting tough problems in health and medicine with out-of-the-box thinking. They’ve embraced the fact that in order to get the health outcomes we want, we need to try something new.

When it comes to surgical training, the standard approach is “see one, do one, teach one.” After watching a procedure completed once, surgeons and surgeons-in-training are expected to be able to perform the procedure themselves and also be capable of teaching another surgeon how to do it. This is the way surgeons have been trained for generations. But Justin Barad, Co-founder of Osso VR, knew there had to be a better way. He and his team have developed a new surgical training platform that hopes to transform the way surgeons learn to operate. Using realistic virtual hands-on simulations, surgeons trained with Osso VR have the ability to rehearse and master procedures—rather than just watch them—before operating on patients. Additionally, the company’s highly portable VR training enables surgeons everywhere to have access to cutting-edge education. Osso VR not only intends to optimize patient outcomes by allowing surgeons more opportunity to practice hands-on, but also to close the gap in surgical training around the world.

When it comes to finding new ways to improve patient outcomes, there’s plenty of room for improvement across the board. In recent years, patient compliance has taken center stage, and most people have focused on the different strategies providers can use to get their patients to remember to take their pills. At Lyndra, CEO Amy Schulman sees the problem from a different perspective. Instead of working to change the patient, she and her team have set out to change the pill. Lyndra is revolutionizing the way in which we take our medications by turning the daily pill dose into a weekly or monthly dosage. With their ultra long-acting oral drug delivery platform, Lyndra is able to reduce the frequency of how often a medication must be taken, which helps the 50% of patients who fail to adhere to their prescription regimen to stay on track with their treatment.

Adherence is also a big issue when it comes to diabetes. From monitoring blood sugar to taking insulin, diabetic patients are forced to take on a huge responsibility in managing their health. However, Fractyl has set out to change the way we treat Type 2 diabetes patients. To start, they’ve shifted attention away from the pancreas, which as the producer of the hormone insulin, has been the focus of mainstream diabetes treatment. Led by Harith Rajagopalan, Co-Founder and CEO, Fractyl is instead focusing on the gut. By targeting the upper intestine, or duodenum, Fractyl addresses a root cause of insulin resistance: the altered intestinal lining of diabetes patients, which has become damaged due to high sugar Western diets. Through their minimally invasive outpatient procedure, Fractyl works to reverse insulin resistance, the hormonal imbalance that causes diabetes, by resurfacing the gut lining of patients. For the 100 million plus diabetes patients worldwide, this procedure could be a game changer—one that means they no longer have to take daily insulin. Furthermore, and importantly, employing Fractyl’s procedure could help to reduce the massive physical and financial burdens of diabetes management that we face on both individual and societal levels.  

The team at Freenome, lead by CEO Gabriel Otte, is also looking to improve the patient experience and doing so by striving to change the way we approach diagnosis. Instead of waiting until patients are symptomatic, they are developing precise and proactive screenings for a range of diseases, including cancer. By combining machine learning, biology, and computer science, Freenome’s blood test looks for changes in DNA fragments over time as a means to detect disease in its earliest and most manageable stage. Gabriel and his team want to change the paradigm—instead of fixing health after we become sick, they want to find disease while it’s still manageable and allow patients to maintain their health.

The team at Zipline saw an old, persistent problem and created a totally unexpected solution. Many countries face difficulties maintaining adequate stocks of medicines in rural areas due to high cost and challenges related to proper storage conditions. In places such as Tanzania, where 68% of the country’s 55 million people live in rural, or Rwanda, where 70% of the country’s 12 million people live in hard to reach areas, the challenge of providing patients with the medical care they require has long been a difficult limit to overcome. In response, Keenan Wyrobek, Zipline’s Co-founder and Head of Product and Engineering, and his team are building and deploying drones—or “Zips”—that deliver life-saving medical supplies, including blood and medications, to remote areas. These drones are capable of carrying out 500 deliveries per day, navigating through difficult terrains and gaps in infrastructure, and flying at all times upon request. Zipline has been deploying Zips throughout Rwanda since late 2016, and they recently announced their plan to expand to Tanzania. By thinking truly out of the box, Keenan and the team at Zipline are confronting accessibility issues and transforming healthcare for millions of people.

Drug pricing is another seemingly intractable issue in health and medicine. Take for example cancer drugs that cost a patient over $100,000 per year. A physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Peter Bach is confronting the complex drug pricing issue head-on. As Director of the hospital’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes and the founder of the Drug Pricing Lab, Peter and his team strive to change the way we think about drug costs. By bringing more transparency to the drug pricing process and identifying rational approaches, Peter works to balance getting patients the treatment they need, while also ensuring drug developers have adequate funding to research, improve, and develop important therapeutics. To do this, the DPL team researches ways to reduce the cost of drugs, educate health professionals and policymakers, and promote policy reform. In service of these objectives, Peter and the DPL launched the DrugAbacus in 2015, an interactive tool that allows users to compare the actual prices of certain cancer drugs to their prices based on value. Through his work, Peter is shifting the focus of drug pricing and putting patients at the center of the conversation.

From the inside of an operating room to the hills of Rwanda, these six Speakers and Innovators are taking on the status quo and driving big changes in health and medicine. At TEDMED 2017, we’ll hear from these outstanding individuals, as well as dozens of others, who are all working in that fertile zone between “what is” and “what could be?”. Their efforts are pushing past perceived limits, driving innovation, and improving health outcomes for all.