Digital Healing: How New Technologies Are Changing the Lives of Patients with Autoimmune Diseases

From 3D printing to special contact lenses, technology is helping patients with autoimmune conditions.

By Eva Recinos on March 16, 2015

As the worlds of technology and medicine continue to progress, it seems natural that the two realms would find themselves inextricably linked. As newer technology emerges, novel medical experiments will naturally come forth as well. This might seem like an obvious point, but the last year proves just what sorts of projects can come from the meshing of technology and medicine.

Autoimmune diseases, for example, prove a challenge in the world of medicine and could benefit from integrating technology into treatment. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from wearable devices to more complex technological processes.

Autoimmune diseases range from serious skin conditions to Type 1 diabetes to lupus. The common thread is the manner in which a patient’s immune system reacts; instead of tackling the cells causing a body’s ailment, it destroys healthy cells as well.

Experimenting With Nanorobots

In order to cause changes directly within the bloodstream, scientists have been experimenting with nanorobots. These are, in essence, microscopic robots. Animesh A. Sinha and Kristina Seiffert-Sinha recently published research in which they worked with nanorobots to perform nano-dissection. They “physically detached cells from each other at certain points to test what that did to their mechanical and biological functions,” a process that can result in key insight into cell behavior, according to SUNY Buffalo’s news center.

The researchers focused specifically on pemphigus vulgaris, an autoimmune skin disease, but they believe their findings could also apply to other debilitating autoimmune diseases. And with more experimentation, nanorobots could possibly create unique channels of communication among themselves, and even independently take action against harmful areas that they detect.

Progress in Wearable Devices

Other experiments in wearable devices can also result in immediate action to alleviate the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Some common wearable devices can already measure simple bodily functions — such as your heartbeat as you go on a run — but these can make an even more significant impact on patients’ lives.

In October, Philips announced a device called BlueControl which counteracts the effects of psoriasis vulgaris. The device basically straps on to the affected part of the body, such as an arm or leg. It then emits a blue, UV-free LED light that works to lessen inflammation. The device uses batteries, and was created to be used in any setting.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating ideas is Google’s so-called smart contact lenses. Though they won’t be available for another five years, the lenses would make it possible for patients with diabetes to track their blood sugar levels. The lens would detect this information simply through tears. Type 1 diabetes results from the pancreas not producing enough insulin, which counteracts blood sugar. Those who suffer from Type 1 diabetes, therefore, must keep a close watch on their sugar levels; some must even wear an insulin pump for quick treatment. The smart contact lenses would prove a less invasive method to keep track of a patient’s sugar level than the finger prick that is currently required.

Yet as J.C. Herz pointed out in a recent Wired article, it seems that many of the advanced wearable devices we use today serve personal purposes rather than immediate medical ones. Herz points out that most makers of wearable devices create objects that cater to a perfectly healthy clientele. There is a need for more experimentation with devices so that they can reach their potential to help those who need them the most.

New Possibilities for 3D Printing

3D printing has also started to generate exciting possibilities for the medical world. The printing method offers a new tool for creating prosthetics, but can also serve other purposes as well. Many scientists have experimented with the 3D printing of splints and even organs. Dr. Glenn Green has already performed surgeries in which he implants a temporary 3D-printed splint into the trachea of babies with faulty airways that need time to develop. 3D printing could eventually allow doctors to create a permanent version of the splint for adults suffering from autoimmune disorders that affect their airway cartilage.

Even 3D printing of scans of a patient’s body can lead to better decisions when tackling specific diseases. In 2013, doctors used specific files from a CT scan to create a 3D printed model of a 67-year-old patient’s trachea and central airways. This model helped them better understand what course of action to take when treating the patient’s relapsing polychondritis, an autoimmune connective tissue disease. In this way, 3D printing can also help generate more accurate and in-depth information about a range of autoimmune conditions. It creates a novel way for doctors to explore health problems before taking more invasive action.

And just recently, a father 3D printed a unique monitoring system for his 10-year-old daughter, who has Type 1 diabetes. The device syncs to the cloud and fits into a case with enough room for a smartphone. Though he had some knowledge of 3D printing before creating the object, he used information that is easily accessible online to develop it further. The DIY mentality of 3D printing could greatly expand its range of possibility as more people gain access to the process.

Now is a fruitful time for the worlds of technology and science to continue coalescing and experimenting. These projects show that the next new idea could result in a life-altering device for those in need.

 

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