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Edinburgh at the heart of the global revolution in digital healthcare driven by science fiction

 
Judy Law
Building a personal digital picture - The rise of digital healthcare (Source: Invest Edinburgh)

From the work of HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke, science fiction visionaries have predicted all manner of technological advances. Just look at the 2002 cyberpunk thriller, Minority Report.

Facial recognition, personalised advertising, predictive crime fighting, gesture control, driverless cars – sound familiar? Yet some technologies have remained tantalisingly beyond our reach…until now.

As Star Trek fans will know, patients were in safe hands with Dr. Leonard McCoy (a.k.a Bones) looking after their wellbeing. With a simple scan from a medical tricorder, Bones could diagnose almost any medical condition and generally perform medical miracles. What would we give today, for a medical tricorder?

About $10m apparently; that’s the prize on offer by QualComm as part of its XPrize Tricorder competition to revolutionise digital healthcare. Teams from around the world will soon complete their four-year mission to develop a handheld device capable of accurately diagnosing 13 health conditions and capture five real-time vital signs.

Technology now has a vital role in how healthcare services are delivered. A growing, ageing global population will have a profound impact on health spending across the world. Estimated at $7.5 trillion last year, it is predicted to rise to $9.3 trillion by 2018.

For a city like Edinburgh, which has been at the forefront of medical innovation for more than two hundred years, this imminent step change creates unprecedented opportunity.

A unique research resource

Scotland has some of the best administrative and healthcare data in the world. NHS Scotland has collected data for more than 40 years while Regional Health Boards hold further clinical data. This provides a unique resource for approved researchers working in health informatics.

A quick look at the pivotal trends emerging in this fast-moving space reveals why Edinburgh is emerging as a thriving hub of collaboration between entrepreneurs, investors, academics, clinicians and data scientists, as well as global enterprise.

1. Medical imaging​

With improvements in x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs, medical visualisation has emerged to not only aid clinicians in making a diagnosis, but also to screen for a wide range of conditions.

At the forefront of this technology is Toshiba Medical Visualisation Systems (TMVS). Its Edinburgh-based development team builds the software used by advanced Toshiba medical scanners around the world. The business, which originated as a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh, now employs 120 people in the city.

“With advances in precision medicine, clinicians are increasingly seeking precision imaging, both spatial and over time,” explains Ken Sutherland, President of TMVS Europe. “The key is providing insightful data that enables them to reach the correct conclusion accurately and efficiently. Precision imaging has an increasingly vital role to play in helping clinicians do their job.”

“It also has the potential to help patients take greater responsibility for their own health – what better motivation to change behaviour than seeing the effect of your lifestyle on your own body?” adds Ken.

Also working on groundbreaking advances in medical visualisation is Holoxica, a more recent spin-out from the University of Edinburgh. Its work in developing real time 3D holographic imagery has already attracted interest from the automotive, aerospace and defence industries, but it is in healthcare that Dr Javid Khan sees the future.

Since 2012, Holoxica has pioneered a patented dynamically changeable holographic display capable of projecting full 3D moving images in mid-air. The business is currently collaborating on an EU-funded research project to develop the next generation of medical imaging and is actively seeking investment to develop its third generation holographic display technology.

2. Wearable technology

Patient-centred care is on the cusp of achieving mainstream penetration. For healthcare authorities, the potential benefits of remote patient monitoring can transform the management of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes.

With the patient monitoring market estimated to be worth $35bn globally, considerable opportunities exist for technology businesses to make their mark. Edinburgh start-up snap40 is already capitalising. In what is thought to be the largest ever seed round by a Scotland-based start-up it has just secured £2m to develop its wearable, health-monitoring armband. snap40’s technology enables hospitals and GPs to monitor a whole host of patient vital signs, enabling the early detection of major health risks.

3. Machine learning and big data

For the past 10 years, TMVS has been working on the integration of machine learning – or cognitive computing – into its medical visualisation software. The technology involves the analysis of thousands of images of a specific part of the human body to identify conditions such as cancer. The result is a diagnostic tool that can assist radiologists or oncologists with their diagnosis.

With more sensors, delivering ever-greater volumes of data, researchers have unprecedented opportunities to stratify populations – for example, identify patients who will have different responses to treatments, or have a predisposition to particular conditions.

However, to have statistically relevant medical studies, researchers are driven to collect data on a very large scale – requiring the integration of multidisciplinary teams of clinicians, public health administrators and data scientists. The University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute and the Farr Institute Scotland, both based at Edinburgh BioQuarter, offer a rare opportunity for such integrated teams to collaborate on the site of a major teaching hospital.

One enterprise already making a commercial impact is Aridhia, a key partner in the creation of the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC). Aridhia’s data science platform, AnalytiXagility provides an essential collaboration tool for capturing and integrating research studies, trials and clinical care data.

These are the opportunities presented to Edinburgh based researchers, healthcare professionals, academics and innovators. Their continuing mission to use technology to develop new tools, treatments and ways of engaging patients in a sustainable, efficient healthcare system of tomorrow. Boldly going where no-one has gone before.

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