Medical Devices Expected to Change the World by 2020

New medical innovations emerge every day that improve health and extend lifespans. Much of the credit for such advancements goes to a plethora of new medical device startups and university research labs. Today researchers work to create noninvasive therapies, to counter treatment-resistant diseases, to make medical research safer, and to revolutionize organ donation. With so many new devices flooding the market, it can be difficult to keep track of major game-changers that really move their segment of healthcare forward. Fret not: this article explores four medical devices which are reshaping people’s approach to healthcare.

Aether 1 Bioprinter

The Aether 1 Bioprinter is a 3D printer that lets doctors and researchers create cellular scaffolding for biomedical purposes. Think 3D-printed stents and artificial organs. Unlike most bioprinters, which are designed to serve one primary function, the Aether 1 can print food products, prototypes, and much more in addition to biomedical materials. Modular attachments like microscopes, laser engravers, and hot syringe extruders increase the printer’s versatility all the more while four unique automation features make otherwise time-consuming or complex processes more efficient.

How It Works

Aether 1 prints tissue-like structures using “bioinks,” or gel-like materials compatible with human tissue. Users can print with up to 24 different biomaterials using eight different fabrication methods. These unique abilities are spearheading major research in areas like organ replacement, stem cell research, orthology, and wound treatment.

Why It’s a Big Deal

Bioprinting is one of today’s most dynamic medical technology research areas. Researchers and health professionals have thus far printed artificial livers, hearts, bones, and more, but new uses and theories emerge all the time. Harvard University researcher and professor Jennifer Lewis even printed thick tissues containing blood vessels. Some researchers eventually publish open source printing plans and procedures.

Another example of boundary-pushing bioprinting is 4D printing, or the use of biomedical materials that can change that can change shape or behavior in response to certain stimuli. That means one could theoretically print a heart or intestine that contracts. According to Biomedverse, such advancements could eventually lead to 3D-printed transplant organs. The devices have already reduced the need for animal testing.

The Details

  • Manufacturer: Aether
  • Cost: About $9,000. Aether notes that competitors’ bioprinters usually cost at least $250,000.
  • Projected Release: Mid-2017, though Aether already donated dozens of the machines to universities for use in major medical research projects.

Dr. Jennifer A. Lewis is the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the founder of its Lewis Research Group. She is also a core faculty member at the University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Dr. Lewis is a materials science expert and major pioneer in 3D bioprinting of vascularized human tissues for drug screen, tissue repair and regeneration. With more than 160 scientific publications and eleven patents under her belt, Dr. Lewis is pushing the boundaries of 3D printing of functional, structural, and biological materials. Among her accomplishments: printing stem-cell laden, thick human tissues that contain blood vessels. Dr. Lewis holds a Doctor of Science in Ceramic Science from MIT.

Kortex VR Device

Fisher Wallace Labs’ Kortex VR is a small brain-stimulation device shown to increase the production of endorphins, mood-regulating serotonin, and sleep-promoting melatonin while reducing that of the stress hormone cortisol. The device attaches to the back strap of any virtual reality headset to create a relaxing, immersive experience that promotes healthy sleep, though its creators note it can be used independently. The Kortex VR relies on the same technology as the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, which is cleared by the FDA to treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and insomnia. The device itself, however, was successfully crowdfunded through IndieGoGo (linked above).

How it works

Kortex gently stimulates the brain with patented brainwaves that produce mood- and sleep-promoting neurochemicals. Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Richard P. Brown told Fisher Wallace that the technology brought relief to more than 70 percent of about 400 severely depressed patients resistant to other therapies. That’s about twice the rate of antidepressants.

Why It’s a Big Deal

The rapidly-growing field of brain stimulation is a often more effective—and less invasive—means of psychiatric treatment compared to most existing therapies. Recent studies suggest it may even improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and autism, among other medical conditions. Kortex’s novel VR-integration, portability, accessibility, and comparatively low cost brings brain stimulation technology to a whole new level.

The Details

  • Manufacturer: Fisher Wallace Labs
  • Cost: $299
  • Projected release: Fisher Wallace aims to make Kortex publicly accessible in July of2017. One can already order the device through IndieGoGo.

Dr. Richard P. Brown is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and clinical researcher at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and co-founder of Breath Body Mind health workshops. As one of the first medical professionals to test Kortex, he has a keen professional interest in non-invasive healthcare and serving treatment-resistant patients, particularly those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also developed a comprehensive physiological theory dealing with the relationship between yoga breathing and such challenges as insomnia, stress, mood disorders, and difficulties with emotion regulation. Dr. Brown has published more than 100 scientific articles and delivers more than 100 lectures each year globally. He earned his MD from Columbia University and a Certificate of Psychopharmacology from the American Society of Clinical Pharmacology.

TAP Blood Collection Device

TAP is an FDA-cleared device that collects blood painlessly using an array of tiny needles called microneedles. Users simply push a button and blood is vacuumed into the device; samples are anticoagulated and ready for lab transport. Researchers hope the device can reduce the number of patients who delay or forego medical tests that rely on drawn blood. It could also be a helpful resource for clinical trials, pharmacies, athletic monitoring, and more.

How It Works

According to manufacturer Seventh Sense Biosystems (7SBio), TAP’s spring-loaded ring of microneedles, which are smaller than an eyelash, creates tiny punctures through which blood is drawn. 7SBio CEO Howard Weisman says the needles are deployed and retracted so rapidly that patients do not feel them at all. As for the TAP device, it is about the size of a stethoscope.

Why It’s a Big Deal

Though life-changing for patients terrified of traditional phlebotic needles, it is TAP’s use of microneedles that is especially revolutionary. It is only one of a whirlwind of new and developing devices using them. Researchers are testing a wearable patch called SkinJect, for instance, that uses dissolvable microneedles to treat basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers directly. Basal cell carcinoma accounts for nearly 80 percent of skin cancer diagnoses, or about two million cases a year.

Another forthcoming device called sugarBEAT is a reusable electronic sensor—also applied using a skin patch—that continuously monitors one’s glucose via a non-perceptible current across the skin. The Bluetooth-enabled device lets diabetics access this information anytime with an app. According to University of Bath pharmaceutical sciences professor Dr. Richard Guy, when paired with microneedles, the patches could painlessly inject insulin whenever patients need it, without any action on their parts.

The Details

Dr. Robert S. Langer is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) David H. Koch Institute Professor—the highest honor awarded to faculty members—and co-founder of Seventh Sense Biosystems. With more than 1,000 issued and pending patents licensed or sublicensed to more than 300 medical device, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical companies, some sources call Dr. Langer the “most cited engineer in history.” He once served on the FDA’s highest advisory board and was profiled by dozens of prominent publications. Dr. Langer received more than 220 major awards. Among them: The United States National Medal of Science and the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Dr. Langer earned a BS in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University and his ScD from MIT.

Dr. A.I.

Dr. A.I. connects patients with personalized medical direction through an app downloaded on their smart devices. The platform digitizes healthcare triage, which means it assesses one’s medical risk and recommends the first step toward treatment. Dr. A.I. uses on health parameters like one’s weight, age, and medical history, and a series of follow-up questions to devise those recommendations. While physicians can already use AI-enhanced software to monitor patients, Dr. A.I. is an important step in putting medical AI squarely in patients’ hands. The app aims to improve consumer medical information to minimize misdiagnoses and unnecessary—or potentially dangerous—home treatments.

How It Works

Dr. A.I. uses machine learning, individual patient medical histories, and more than a half-decade of knowledge from 105,000 triage experts to direct patients with medical concerns. Unlike internet search engines often used to research symptoms, Dr. A.I. considers one’s personal medical background to develop highly-targeted questions. It then produces a list of potential causes of one’s symptoms ranked by the seriousness of the conditions. Dr. A.I. also uses a cloud-based digital health platform that connects patients with doctors via phone, text, or video chat. It is available on both Android and iOS devices.

Why It’s a Big Deal

Experts expect artificial intelligence to revolutionize healthcare as we know it. Google began developing AI surgical robots in 2015, for instance, and doctors can already use AI-enhanced software to monitor patients. Dr. A.I. is an excellent example of how accessible such tools are becoming, and how quickly. While the app is a major step in consumer-driven medical triage in the United States, the UK’s National Health Service is already using a similar platform called Babylon to reduce lengthy patient waiting lists by weeding out cases that do not necessarily require a physician visit. Like Dr. A.I., Babylon lets patients monitor their health and ask medical questions using an AI chat tool. Because it is a government-condone app, however, Babylon users can actually order medical kits and tests for at-home diagnostic purposes.

As helpful as it might be, medical use of AI is the subject of ethical debate. Some experts worry devices do not have the personal insight of human healthcare providers and could, therefore, overlook something critical. Nonetheless, AI proponents believe the ease and accessibility of tools like Dr. A.I. can theoretically prompt more patients to mitigate life-threatening medical situations and reduce home-health mishaps and the load of unnecessary doctor visits. The technology is perhaps even more important to rural and economically disadvantaged patients with limited healthcare access.

The Details

  • Creator: HealthTap
  • Cost: Free, though there may be in-app purchases.
  • Projected release: Dr. A.I. made its public debut in early January of 2017.

Ron Gutman is the co-founder and CEO of the Silicon Valley startup HealthTap and an active speaker and curator in the TED community. He is an advisor and angel investor to such companies as Harvard Medical School’s SMArt Initiative and Stanford Medical X. Previously Mr. Gunman served as founder and CEO of the online community of health writers Wellsphere. While a graduate student at Stanford University, Gutman lead a diverse group of faculty and students to research ways to personalize health and increase patient engagement. Several national publications have covered his work in healthcare, innovation, and smiling. Among them: Forbes and the Huffington Post.

The Future of Health Innovation: How to Get Involved

Many of the companies highlighted here are, or were, small startups founded on little more than a very good idea, some investment capital, and sheer will. In other words, the medical device market is no longer reserved for major pharmaceutical companies and labs. The University of Utah has even published a list of instructions for future innovators. Interested, prospective students are encouraged to invest their time in the med-tech professions and degrees that improve one’s chances of getting involved, especially those that deal specifically with biomedical engineering, medical lab technology, and business.

Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler Writer

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as Director of Communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.