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Life Sciences

Researcher with microscope

As DNA code meets computer code, technology is revolutionising healthcare and life sciences. The UK is in the vanguard of this new era, with its top-calibre institutional research, tried and tested supply-chain effectiveness, cutting-edge digital tools and equipment, and world-class biotech companies.

Touch gesturing a tablet

With adeptness in transformative areas such as medtech, digital health and bioinformatics, UK companies are producing next generation healthcare and life sciences goods and services. These include wellness-improving wearable technologies, and platforms which combine supercomputing heft with British skills and ingenuity to turbo-streamline pharmaceutical R&D processes, bringing needed medicines to market faster.

The simple scientific principle behind it is that weight gain and loss are controlled by the brain.

Care-able Tech for Weight Management

Wearable tech is poised to revolutionise healthcare. But, according to Belfast medical technology startup Neurovalens, its so-called Careable Tech™ is part of the innovative trend’s next wave.

The Modius headset, its debut product, actually impacts wearers. It promises to help users non-invasively shed body fat when worn for just one hour a day.

The simple scientific principle behind it is that weight gain and loss are controlled by the brain. As such, the headset stimulates the vestibular nerve behind the ear, close to the skin’s surface — sending a signal to the weight and appetite-overseeing hypothalamus. When used properly the result is a leaner physique.

Tests and Trials

“I’ve been overweight in the past and I know how difficult it is to lose weight,” says Dr McKeown. He tested the Modius prototypes on himself and saw a reduction in his body fat by 44% within 12 months – a benchmark he managed to maintain even a year on.

Further, Modius has been trialled on overweight adults. Study volunteers wore the headsets for up to three hours a week. They experienced a decrease in appetite and their metabolism shifted in favour of fat burning.

All subjects lost body fat after four months — with some shedding 16%. While Neurovalens’ founders suggest a reasonably healthy lifestyle and eating habits while using the device for best results, they view the findings as very promising.

All subjects lost body fat after four months — with some shedding 16%.
neuro network
“We recognise that in the current state of pharmaceutical development, the model just is not sustainable.”

BenevolentAI differentiates itself from its peers by coming up with potentially life-saving treatments, using artificial intelligence. It can generate possible disease targets in as little as five hours, revolutionising drug discovery and development and rapidly accelerating a half-century old scientific process.

“We recognise that in the current state of pharmaceutical development, the model just is not sustainable,” says founder and chairman Ken Mulvany. It can typically take five to seven years of development before therapies are even introduced into the human population. BenevolentAI can shorten this to a year or 18 months.

Addressing this age-old R&D timeline was just one of the radical changes Mulvany, an industry veteran, sought to bring about.

In 2012, he had sold his United Kingdom-listed biotech Proximagen, then the largest of its kind in Europe, to Upsher-Smith, a pharmaceutical company in the United States. The following year, he founded BenevolentAI, now the largest private AI company in Europe; fifth largest in the world. In its last funding round, it raised $87 million USD, at a valuation of $1.7 billion.

“Everything about BenevolentAI is based on my experience in biotech,” he says. His two chief aims: bring down costs by improving cure hypothesis and democratise scientific information.

“If you look at biology or pharma, there are a lot of silos of knowledge,” he says of the latter, “You need a much more holistic view of how the human body works.” Where molecules may have failed in clinical trials for a specific disease, they may succeed in targeting another perhaps unrelated disorder.

“We recognise that in the current state of pharmaceutical development, the model just is not sustainable.”
“The hypothesis generation uses somewhere on average between 300,000 and 400,000 pieces of information to form each individual hypothesis that’s presented.”

Scientists digest and make sense of the findings, validating or negating them. Then, at “a strong value inflection point” when treatments have been shown to work, the company may decide to step away from further development.

While BenevolentAI might keep working on untreated diseases with high medical needs like Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease (MND) and Lou Gehrig's disease (for which its findings were recently published), about two thirds of the programmes in its drug pipeline are more suitable for its licensing franchise.

Putting Alzheimer’s therapies, for example, in patients’ hands, may require huge clinical trials and sales forces. “Big pharmaceutical companies can make that investment,” notes Mulvany. In fact, BenevolentAI partnered with a major US pharmaceutical on R&D on a cure for the dementia-causing disease.

“The hypothesis generation uses somewhere on average between 300,000 and 400,000 pieces of information to form each individual hypothesis that’s presented.”
human model

This is its chief mandate. “Benevolent is not just our name,” he says, “We actually want to do some good.” As such, it refrains from patenting cures which it has no intention of taking forward, so they can be developed by others. The company also collaborates with organisations and individuals in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

In 2013, when it set up shop in the ‘knowledge quarter’, BenevolentAI and industry peer DeepMind were the only ones pushing the limits of deep learning. Today, London is widely known as a global machine learning hub. Mulvany recognises such strengths, concluding: “My real goal with this company is to retain our success in the UK.”

The OR of the future could be more like an OS. With every facet of life transforming through digital innovation, the operating room too is poised to function as fluidly as a tech device’s operating system.

In this arena, London startup Touch Surgery is using 21st century technology to help make surgeries safer. Its namesake product is a step-by-step immersive surgical training app which combines medical knowledge with the captivating animation of a video game.

The unique educational tool boasts over two million downloads. While sleek graphics and interactivity make it intriguing to the surgically curious, it is mainly employed in residency programmes – over 155 to date. Among them, reputed names like Harvard and Johns Hopkins.

Gamifying Surgical Learning

While Touch Surgery has offices in Auckland, New York and San Francisco, the London headquarters is a hub for its human capital. “The UK is a great market for us in terms of talent. The majority of our people are here,” Dr Nehme says.

The young firm also managed to draw talent from outside the medical community and across the Atlantic – namely Disney’s Pixar animation studio and George Lucas-founded visual effects company Industrial Light Magic.

“These are people who are making big movies and we brought them into a world of, not making Toy Story, but surgical movies and games,” says Dr Nehme. They also populated the interdisciplinary team with video game expertise.

With the Touch Surgery app hosting over 150 procedures, from neurology to orthopaedics, healthcare professionals can choose to learn which type of incision to make in dental implant surgery or where to apply a syringe before a chest tube insertion. Then, the game-inspired bit comes in as users test competence by indicating, for example, the types of sutures required in an operation, by swiping their touch screens.

“We wanted to build something that was highly engaging,” says Dr Nehme, who believes that elements of gaming encourage repetition and retention, important behaviours in learning. “We wanted to ensure that we were leveraging the best-in-class concept from an educational adult learning perspective and from the world of game-based learning.”

A Digital Surgery Ecosystem

What began as the Touch Surgery app has evolved into a suite of digital tools for medical professionals, now operating under parent company Digital Surgery Ltd.

Going forward, they are working with hospitals to bring Touch Surgery to ORs to aid in surgical prep along with their latest tool, Go Surgery, which digitally streamlines procedures, helping reduce errors, inefficiencies and waste.

Dr Nehme sees the latter as, “an operating system for the OR like Android.” The new product facilitates procedures via a live flow of information, delivered on screens. In future, augmented reality headsets may even be added to enable more networked coordination.

In the meantime, Dr Nehme and the team have their sights on perhaps the most extensive network of all: the forward-looking global surgical community. He hopes its denizens contribute their own complementary healthcare apps to his firm’s suite of products and will be providing them with the tools and application programming interface through which to do so.

He adds, “This digital surgery ecosystem is going to be created not just by us, but by everyone.”

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