Anticipatory Medical Devices: The future of medicine?

images-11Dr. Donald Ingber gave a glimpse into the future of medicine at my commencement ceremony this weekend. As the director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, Ingber is charged with leading the university’s efforts to combine engineering, biology, and medicine.

According to Dr. Ingber, Wyss center researchers are particularly excited about devices that predict and fix medical maladies. He called these “anticipatory medical devices,” and described a vision for a portable gadget that not only detected a patient’s heart arrhythmia, high cholesterol, or low blood sugar, but also corrected the abnormality before the patient presents any noticeable symptoms.

While wearing a device that prevents hospital visits sounds appealing, the idea also raises some questions: Would patients trust a machine to automatically correct vital body processes? Would doctors accept relinquishing diagnosis and treatment power to a widget? Would insurers still cover an ER trip if the patient carried an “anticipatory medical device”?

Dr. Ingber and his colleagues will certainly face resistance from various stakeholders, and Wyss Institute researchers will need to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of their anticipatory products to overcome skeptics. Despite likely obstacles to wide adoption, the researchers can take solace in the success of colleagues in the motor vehicle industry. With cars now able to detect a medical emergency and pull over, an iPhone app that prevents heart attacks seems less outrageous.

For those interested in pushing the anticipatory medicine envelope with Dr. Ingber, the Wyss Institute is looking for a few good postdocs