Two technologies that offer huge advantages for doctors in diagnosing or monitoring disease are mobile apps in population studies and nanoparticles for targeting cancers.
Working in the medical and veterinary sector for years gave me a fascinating insight into the ways technology would lead to vastly improved diagnosis and treatment for diseases that are difficult or impossible to treat today. Research into medical nanoparticles has been going on in universities and hospitals around the world for more than a decade now, while newer mobile technologies provide novel ways to study health. So it is heartening to read about projects that promise to revolutionise medicine.
Mobile technology offers health professionals the opportunity to gather data from large populations, using freely distributed software. Project ‘100 for Parkinson’s‘ is asking for 100,000 people across the UK, US and Australia to track their health using a smartphone app. Whether people are perfectly healthy or suffer from Parkinson’s is not important, the anonymised data gathered will be compared and show how sufferers manage their condition compared to healthy app users. It is hoped the data will unlock new treatments and help improve Parkinson’s management.
All participants are asked to track the ten most important aspects of their health – five the same and then another five that are most important to them. The uMotif app helps users to manage medications, set reminders, record diary entries about their health and connect wearable health tracking devices. They can also share experiences on social media and connect with others taking part in the study.
One person in every 500 globally has Parkinson’s disease – more than 127,000 people in the UK and around 10 million people globally suffer from the condition. The app can track factors that are commonly affected by the disease such as sleep quality, mood, exercise, diet and stress levels.
Startup for 100
Health startup uMotif is leading this global science project, supported by organisations including The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, biopharma company UCB, medical technology company Boston Scientific, and the European Parkinson’s Disease Association.
Bruce Hellman, chief executive of uMotif said: “We’re so used to communicating, shopping, even banking, on our mobile phones and yet we’re only just starting to uncover their potential for our health. 100 For Parkinson’s will find out how smartphone platforms can help people with Parkinson’s, and everyone else, to understand their own bodies. Patients with Parkinson’s often only visit a doctor twice a year, so knowing more about their health will help them to bridge the gap between health visits and better understand their symptoms.”
Users simply download the uMotif app to their smartphone or tablet and monitor their health for 100 days, donating their anonymous data for research. The app is freely available at the Apple App Store and Google Play – enter code 100FP to access the study and join in at http://www.100forparkinsons.com.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have developed nanoparticles to deliver chemotherapy drugs direct to the tumour site, for pancreatic cancer sufferers, reducing harm to healthy tissues. Five year survival rates for pancreatic cancer are pitifully low – just six per cent – and new treatment options are urgently needed.
As more than 80 per cent of diagnoses for pancreatic cancers happen too late for life-saving surgery, that puts a huge emphasis on improved chemotherapy as the only possible treatment. Scientists at UCLA’s NanoSystems Institute and its Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center developed the delivery system together. Tumour cells are targeted directly using mesoporous silica nanoparticles carrying one chemotherapy drug, reducing side effects from the drug attacking healthy cells and spreading throughout the body in the bloodstream.
Their study used a chemotherapy drug combination of the drugs 5-fluorouracil, irinotecan, oxaliplatin and leucovorin – collectively known as FOLFIRINOX. Silica nanoparticles carry this toxic package wrapped in a double layer of lipids (molecules found in the structure of living cells) which unloads once it reaches the cancer site. “Because of stable drug retention by the lipid layers, the nanoparticles greatly reduce the amount of healthy tissue cells exposed to [the extremely toxic] irinotecan,” said Andre Nel, associate director of the California NanoSystems Institute. “The severe side effects of irinotecan largely result from its exposure to healthy tissues such as bone marrow, liver, and gut.”
There is still some distance to go before a human clinical trial is launched – the effect was seen to be greater in mice with pancreatic tumours than a previous FDA-approved treatment – but the study has established a normal strategy for irinotecan delivery via nanoparticle. This technique will be easier to scale up to production levels because less of the drugs is needed for treatment. It can also be used to deliver other chemotherapy drugs and could be useful in treating other types of cancer.