Technology seems to change everything, doesn't it? In transportation, for example, innovations such as electric trolleys, automobiles, steam engines, railroads, and airplanes made our travels faster, safer, and more effective. Perhaps hoverboards will be another welcome innovation, once they stop catching fire. Healthcare is another field that has been transformed by technology over time, such as via intravenous drug delivery, autoclaves, and dialysis machines. Here are three relatively new healthcare technologies that may soon be changing many lives for the better.
Cheryl Swanson: Remember NBC's The Six Million Dollar Man? Fans of the old TV series may finally see it return, sort of -- in real life. How? Bionic prosthetics.
Most people realize that athletes sporting sleek black carbon fiber and titanium arms or legs are becoming competitive with regular athletes. But did you know prosthetic limbs can now be controlled via brain signals? Through a process called targeted muscle reinnervation, nerves at the site of amputation are redirected to healthy muscles elsewhere in the body. Electrodes sense the electrical activity and provide control signals to the prosthetic limb. The result is that just by thinking of moving an amputated arm, the prosthetic arm can be moved.
On a more prosaic level, both Stryker Corporation (NYSE:SYK) and Zimmer Biomet Holdings (NYSE:ZBH) are pushing the envelope with joint replacement -- using CT bone scans and 3D printing to personalize device design. These companies focus on more easily replicated parts of the human body, while highly speculative Second Sight Medical Products (NASDAQ:EYES) focuses on one of the most complex -- the human eye.
Not surprisingly, this high-tech gear is expensive. A prosthetic foot, for example, can cost more than $50,000. Couple that with the devices being rarely reimbursable by insurance or Medicare, and the smaller companies lose money so fast that appealing investment opportunities are rare. Still, that could change as modern medicine keeps developing technology to rebuild the human body. Think of it as a space to keep an eye on -- perhaps even someday a bionic one.
Sean Williams: It's a broad topic, but personalized medicine as a whole is shaping up to be a game-changer over the coming decade. By personalized medicine I mean removing the one-size-fits-all treatment parameters that have been associated with certain diseases -- especially cancer -- and instead offering treatment paths that suit the patient best depending on their genetic makeup. By utilizing individual biomarkers, patients can be given treatments that give them the best chance of a cure or long-term survival.
For example, Roche (NASDAQOTH:RHHBY) developed the Cobas EGFR mutation test for cancer patients with non-small-cell lung cancer that possess the EGFR mutation. If a patient were to test positive with Roche's diagnostic, they could potentially qualify for Tagrisso, which is designed to treat the T790M mutation, or Tarceva for exon 19 deletions. Specific therapies based on genetic biomarkers typically offer a higher chance of response and duration of response.
But, it's not just the diagnostic technology that's exciting. What's being developed in the laboratory is just as encouraging. A partnership between Intrexon (NYSE:XON) and Ziopharm Oncology (NASDAQ:ZIOP) is looking to completely change the way cancer is treated through the uses of gene therapy. Intrexon and Ziopharm are on the cutting edge of a type of cancer research known as CAR-T, which essentially forces cancer cells to produce a protein that T-cells can detect and attack. What makes this partnership so unique is its ability to genetically modify T-cells and use Intrexon's RheoSwitch technology to turn gene expression on or off as needed to maximize therapeutic benefits. Gene therapy could become a staple to treating cancer in the coming years, which makes this is a technology worth monitoring very closely.
Selena Maranjian: Another healthcare technology that looks likely to make a meaningful difference in many lives over the coming decade is wearable technology. I'm referring to products such as Fitbit devices and even Apple's Apple Watch, which can collect information about our health and our attempts to improve it.
Wearable devices can motivate people to exercise more -- by tracking their progress, offering feedback, and reminding them when they've been sedentary for a long time. The potential is far huger than that, though. The data collected by the devices can not just inform the wearer, but can be shared with others -- including, potentially, doctors, insurers, and others.
Wearables can measure more than just your exercise throughout the day. Many today already monitor your heart rate. They're not just watches. They can be bands worn around the chest, or devices embedded or clipped onto clothing, and they might even be on your glasses or contact lenses. Some devices might prompt you to improve your posture, while others might monitor your glucose level or warn you if you seem at risk of a heart attack or seizure soon. Insurers can offer lower rates to those who share health tracking data with them, while doctors might be alerted to patients who aren't moving enough -- perhaps after surgery, for example.
In 2014, 10% of Americans surveyed owned wearables, with the rate of people owning or having used them now doubled to roughly 20%, by a recent Forrester Research estimate. As wearables become more widely adopted and their functionality widens, they are likely to help people get healthier and stay healthier.
These are only a few healthcare technologies and trends to watch out for. Learn more about these and others, and you'll discover some intriguing investment possibilities, too.
Cheryl Swanson owns shares of Apple. Sean Williams has no position in any stocks mentioned. Selena Maranjian owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.