What technologies will emerge as game changers for the practice of medicine by the end of 2023?
Predicting the future isn't an easy task. What seems like a sure-fire success often turns out to be a colossal failure. However, several technologies in their infancy today hold tremendous potential to radically change the face of medicine over the next 10 years. Here are three that will most likely make an enormous impact in the near future.
1. 3-D bioprinting
Three-dimensional printing is making big waves in several areas already, but the application of the technology to medicine could be one of the most important. Some scientists have already used 3-D printing to create artificial airways and cartilage. Future innovations have even greater potential for revolutionizing medicine.
Organovo (NYSEMKT: ONVO ) could be on to something huge with its bioprinted liver tissue. The company presented data in October that showed promise for its 3-D liver tissue in helping pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs by more easily identifying toxicology problems.
Bioprinting of tumors represents another way that companies like Organovo can dramatically improve the drug development process. The capability to print tumors could reshape how biotech and pharmaceutical companies test new cancer drugs. While practical use of this technology is likely a few years away, Organovo is already working with Oregon Health and Science University's Knight Cancer Center to use 3-D bioprinting to generate tumors.
2. Cognitive computing
The term "cognitive computing" refers to systems modeled after how the human brain works, especially the brain's ability to understand language. IBM (NYSE: IBM ) stands at the forefront of the field with its Watson technology. Famous for defeating human champions from the TV game show Jeopardy!, Watson has recently been deployed to help in health-care settings.
IBM and Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York City teamed up to apply Watson's capabilities to help physicians determine the best treatment options for cancer patients. Watson churns through all kinds of information about the patient, including clinical notes, lab results, and more, plus treatment information from medical journals, research findings, and other sources. It then provides alternatives to help the physicians make individualized patient treatment plans.
Don't expect any computer to replace the judgment of human physicians anytime soon, though. Over the next several years, however, we will probably see technology like Watson help augment the decision-making done by doctors by providing information that they wouldn't have time to sort through.
3. Wireless body monitoring
We need only to listen to the words of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski to get a feel for the potential for wireless body monitoring. Genachowski noted last year that "a monitored hospital patient has a 48% chance of surviving a cardiac arrest," compared with only 6% for an unmonitored patient.
With the tremendous opportunity for improving health care in mind, the FCC proposed allocating spectrum for Medical Body Area Network, or MBAN, devices. Such devices will record vital signs and other important physical information through sensors attached to a person's body, with the data transmitted to a local wireless hub. The information can then be monitored remotely by clinical professionals, with alerts sent to let these experts know when medical intervention could be needed.
GE Healthcare (NYSE: GE ) is one company already developing MBAN devices. The giant company plans to introduce technology using sensors that monitor heart and breathing rates, temperature, and pulse oximetry within the next few years. Deloitte predicts that the wireless body monitoring market could more than triple in just the next couple of years. Within the next decade, this technology could be key in helping control overall medical costs.
Focus on the future
The words of legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky's dad have almost become a cliche, but they're still true: "Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been." Long-term investors particularly should keep that advice in mind.
There's no guarantee that our current mental picture of how medicine will look 10 years from now will materialize. However, the three technologies mentioned seem quite likely to make a big mark in the world of health care.
It's possible that smaller companies like Organovo could wither away as others step forward. Big companies of today like IBM and GE could be outdone by smaller, more nimble technology companies. Maybe -- but these companies could also leverage their early mover status to achieve big wins. The next decade will be fun to watch.
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