In my last post I talked about robots and other technologies used for remote monitoring of patients who are seeking to lose weight or achieve other healthcare goals. One of the biggest challenges with remote monitoring systems, particularly as it relates to consistently and frequently monitoring people with chronic illness, such as heart or lung disease, is compliance. Even when the technology is sitting right there on their kitchen counter, as the Autom or Health Buddy does, sometimes people just ignore it. If you let the system know you were experiencing shortness of breath or a rapid, irregular heartbeat, your doctor could be on the phone to you in well, a heartbeat. Instead, that fancy remote monitoring device sometimes gets used as a handy dandy towel rack, just like that exercise bike in your bedroom does an excellent job of holding up your clothes.
Of course, we all recognize this is just human nature. Your spouse says to you, “don’t talk on the cell phone while you’re driving, “ and, while you’re responding with “don’t tell me what to do, “ you slam into the back of a Mercedes. Human nature: don’t tell me what to do, don’t make me report to you, even if it’s good for me. Don’t make me take action to take care of myself…I just want some all-seeing force to take care of me while I’m watching American Idol. Pass the potato chips.
So what if such a thing was possible? What if you could truly monitor patients in a completely passive and comfortable way…in a way that they didn’t even know it was happening? Imagine a system that could continuously listen to a patient’s heart or lung sounds or other electric/acoustic signals of the body? Well, granted, there are some monitors that can be worn to listen to heart sounds, for instance, but they are extremely annoying to wear. They wrap around your body, stick to your skin, and generally make you feel like you’re wearing someone else’s bra–not comfortable and not a long-term solution. What I’m talking about is a product that could listen to the sounds of your body 24/7 and communicate irregularities to a medical expert but you would not even feel it at all.
Amazingly, a new breakthrough in materials science out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is on the precipice of making this possible. Acoustic fibers—fibers that can hear, collect data, and communicate it back out—have recently been announced as the most recent technology to emerge from the laboratory of Dr. Yoel Fink, who is one of the smartest guys on the planet and, I am lucky to say, founder and Chairman of one of my portfolio companies, OmniGuide. A recent article in the Economist discusses this scientific breakthrough.
“What the hell,” you say, “a fiber that hears? What kind of fiber?” Well, I’ve seen them and they look kind of like Rapunzel’s hair, long and silky and fine (1.1 millimeters in diameter), and they are capable of being woven into fabrics or any structure, really. Take that bra, for instance. I mean, you’re wearing one anyway so it’s not as if it’s intrusive. Imagine for a moment that your bra has fibers woven within it that could listen to your heart or lungs and measure the sounds they produce today against the sounds they have produced for the last several months. When they notice a difference, which could be a pre-cursor to an adverse medical event, they send a signal to a cell phone or other receiver that says, “hey, dude, get some medical attention, stat.”
We are talking here about the potential of a virtual monitor in the shape of a sock that can listen to the flow of blood in your ankle, compare it to previous measurements, and tell you when the arteries in your feet are becoming occluded and need attention. Pretty damn cool and the clear antidote to the problem of patient compliance. Except when your sock disappears in the dryer. Hey, maybe that’s the solution to missing socks! Fiber-laced socks could call your cell phone and inform you of their whereabouts! Now that’s what I call applied science.
In any event, the process by which these fibers work is beyond the scope of this blog (and my intellect), but you can read about that here. In its simplest form, the technology relies on a material commonly used in microphones and a highly complex manufacturing process much like that already in use for OmniGuide (the medical device company), which produces fibers of another material composition—in that case the fibers deliver laser energy to undertake precision surgery.
For the moment, let me just assure you that the new applications of this fiber technology are real and being perfected and tested for multiple uses, including wearable microphones, biological sensors and large area sonar imaging. The development of these fibers was originally funded by the military, which apparently can think of a myriad of uses, such as listening to soldiers’ surroundings or measuring biological conditions in the battlefield.
But wait, there’s more! What is especially crazy is that these fibers cannot only detect and produce sound, but–brace yourself–they can also detect images. The fibers can sense light and integrate what has been sensed into a readable image. This work is still in progress, but has great promise in both military and commercial applications. One can imagine a military helmet that can see enemies in the surrounding area or a baseball cap that can see the pitch going off the left inside corner of home plate. Maybe there is a virtual umpire in our future who doesn’t make bad calls.
Oh, and in case you are not yet impressed, the next idea for the fiber is targeted to smell. The idea is that smell-sensing fibers would be woven into the fabric of airline seats and/or busses to sense whether someone is carrying TNT on board. Still on the drawing board, the fiber “nose” will make it at least 3 of the 5 human senses that can be performed by a structure that looks pretty much like fishing wire.
Thus, in a perfect world, we will soon have clothing that can hear the baking pans come out of the oven at Krispy Kreme, smell when the donuts are done, and see that your favorite type is now available (chocolate iced, cream filled). Now that is living. Thankfully the fiber cannot taste the donut for me so I am not entirely obsolete.
I am confident that Yoel will make something amazing from these technologies—that they are not just cool ideas without practical applications. Why do I know this? Well, he has been down this road before. His first significant fiber discovery, the “perfect mirror”, has become the foundation for OmniGuide, the laser surgery company previously mentioned. OmniGuide’s laser fibers, channeling CO2-based laser energy, enable minimally invasive surgery to remove tumors and ablate tissue in numerous applications from neurology, otolaryngology, otology, gynecology, urology, even opthamology.
Because of their unique characteristics, these fibers enable surgeons to remove tissue without causing the kind of collateral damage to nearby bodily structures that is so often the case when one uses metal scalpels or other kinds of lasers to perform surgery. Today, OmniGuide’s products are used in more than 1000 surgeries a month and that number is growing fast. These fibers may not see or hear, but they save lives every day and also reduce the cost of treatment by shortening surgical time, mitigating negative side effects and reducing post-surgical pain. So far the fiber has not been able to scrub in on its own and replace the medical staff, but Yoel is young and he has a lot of years of discovery still in front of him.