Tech giants such as Google, Apple and Microsoft are investing heavily in HealthTech. We take a look at what exactly they’re up to.

Over $2bn was poured into the global digital health sector in the first half of 2016, according to Rock Health, a venture fund dedicated to digital health.

Technology aimed at making a difference and saving lives is becoming an increasingly popular and attractive opportunity among tech giants and VCs alike.

From NHS collaborations to diagnostic devices and programmable biological cells, here’s how some of the world’s biggest technology companies are innovating within the healthcare sector.

Google

Google spent £400m acquiring London-based AI firm DeepMind in 2014 and then took a leap into healthcare when DeepMind Health collaborated with the NHS in 2016. The Royal Free London approached DeepMind to develop an app called Streams, which improves the detection of acute kidney injury through blood test results.

“When it’s fully built, we believe that this will speed up the time to alert nurses and doctors to patients in need down from hours to a few seconds,” DeepMind claimed. “And by freeing up clinicians’ time from juggling multiple pager, desktop-based and paper systems, it should redirect over half a million hours per year away from admin and towards direct patient care at the Royal Free.”

DeepMind has now announced a five-year partnership with the Royal Free in order to further build upon Streams. Other recent endeavors by the giant include a research partnership with UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s Radiotherapy Department.

Radiotherapy planning is a crucial step when treating cancer, especially in more delicate areas such as the neck or head. Clinicians must therefore provide radiotherapy machines with a segmented plan, so treatment can target the infected areas while avoiding damage to any vital nerves or organs. The partnership with UCL will explore how machine learning can reduce the amount of time this planning takes, aiming to free up clinicians’ time and, in the long term, develop an algorithm with the potential to be applied to other areas of the body.

DeepMind also scored a controversial partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital in July 2016 to discover how machine learning algorithms could help the eye scan analysis process. In turn, it is hoped doctors will be able to quickly detect, diagnose and treat eye conditions that lead to blindness.

Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind, commented: “We set up DeepMind because we wanted to use AI to help solve some of society’s biggest challenges, and diabetic retinopathy is the fastest growing cause of blindness worldwide.

“Detecting eye diseases as early as possible gives patients the best possible chance of getting the right treatments. I really believe that one day this work will be a great benefit to patients across the NHS,” he added.

Apple

First introducing the Health app in 2014, Apple made a move into the healthcare space through a series of applications.

In 2016, the Health app enhanced its offering with an activity tracker, a sleep analysis tool and mindfulness and nutrition features. Data such as blood pressure, blood glucose levels, body measurements and reproductive health can also be stored on the app.

Beyond the standard Health application, Apple’s ResearchKit and CareKit are enabling healthcare professionals and patients to revolutionise medical research.

ResearchKit, an open-source framework for app-building, enables medical researchers to create apps to enrol participants, conduct studies and gather data. Apps developed through the framework include the likes of mPower, a creation by the University of Rochester which uses iPhone features to measure participants’ dexterity, balance, gait and memory in order to gain insights into Parkinson’s disease.

Also created through ResearchKit is Autism & Beyond, which uses the front camera alongside facial algorithms to track the reactions of children to a series of videos. This assists the diagnosis of autism in children as young as 18 months old.

CareKit, like ResearchKit, is an open source software framework, but instead allows developers to build apps that are patient-focused to assist the management of their conditions. Also connecting with the Apple Watch, CareKit apps enable patients to track, record and (should they wish to) share their symptoms and medications with the care team behind the application. The aim is to develop apps that help patients better understand their conditions, while assisting researchers in the discovery of new medical insights.

EpiWatch, the first research app available on Apple Watch, allows researchers to collect physiological data of epileptic users’ seizures. Created by John Hopkins Digital, it is hoped that the data will lead to the development of a seizure predictor. Presently, the app keeps track of users’ seizures and notifies a loved one when one is on its way.

Apple’s CareKit has also assisted the creation of features in apps including Glow Nurture, which helps mothers track their pregnancies. Glow Baby, another app by the same developer, enables mums to record day-to-day activities following the birth of their baby, including breastfeeding, feeding and nappy changes.

Samsung

In contrast to Apple’s app-based approach, Samsung extended into healthcare when it purchased a 43.5% stake in medical equipment firm Medison back in 2010. The purchase, which marked the firm’s shift away from just consumer-focused gadgets, paved the way for Samsung’s venture into HealthTech through ultrasound diagnostic devices.

Partnering with Scotland’s NHS in 2013, a pilot was conducted using Samsung’s LABGEO IB10 portable blood analyser to discover whether patients with chest pain could be diagnosed for cardiac problems during ambulance journeys. The results from a sample of over 100 patients with chest pain found that in-transit analysis reduced the average time taken to obtain first troponin results by 2.5 hours.

The giant then acquired NeuroLogica, a medical imaging technology startup from Massachusetts, in the same year. Known predominantly for its portable CT scanners, the deal marked the next stage in Samsung’s push into the medical equipment business, furthering the giant’s commitment to its 2020 vision to “explore new avenues of growth in the healthcare business by enhancing medical imaging diagnosis”.

Some of the latest innovations by the giant’s medical arm, called Samsung Medison, include Crystal Vue, a diagnostic ultrasound system, and the application of deep learning technology to ultrasound imaging in breast lesion analysis. Using big data collected from past breast examination cases, the S-Detect for Breast can recommend whether a lesion is benign or malignant. By adopting a deep learning algorithm when analysing and assessing lesions, Samsung says operators of the imaging devices will gain more accurate results.

Microsoft

In September 2016, Microsoft announced several new initiatives focusing on the use of AI in healthcare. One of the initiatives hopes to create simulations of how cancer develops in patients’ bodies, while another team is working on what Microsoft describes as ‘moonshot efforts’, which could one day enable scientists to use programmable biological cells to fight bodily diseases, including cancer.

Antonio Criminisi, a principal researcher at Microsoft in Cambridge, has developed an intelligent analysis system similar to what DeepMind is trying to achieve through its collaboration with UCL. The system, which utilises AI, creates a 3D image of a tumor and provides ‘assistive analytics’ to guide treatment planners through the planning process, attempting to kill diseased cells while avoiding healthy ones.

Andrew Phillips, head of the biological computation research group at Microsoft’s Cambridge lab, commented: “If you look at the combination of things that Microsoft does really well, then it makes perfect sense for Microsoft to be in this industry.

“We can use methods that we’ve developed for programming computers to programme biology, and then unlock even more applications and even better treatments,” he concluded.

If you’re interested in digital health, check out edition 13 of Tech City News’s popular print magazine – The HealthTech Issue – online. 

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