Technology has been a driving force of change in the field of medicine for decades, and the high-tech transformation will continue to accelerate through the 2010s. Smartphones, tablet computers, mobile health (mHealth) apps, and remote monitoring devices are revolutionizing medicine to the point that Forbes has declared 2013 the “Year of Digital Health.” This trend has gone beyond iPhones and iPads to include medical devices that treat or diagnose diseases and conditions in patients from birth through age 18.
One promising development concerns genomic sequencing in the clinic. A high-speed sequencer developed by Illumina called STAT-Seq is being used at the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City to analyze the DNA of newborns. The sequencer can read the baby’s genes while cross-referencing the results against a digital database of mutations that cause genetic diseases. Not only are doctors finding known causes of genetic disorders, but they’re also finding new ones. Children can be born with more than 7,000 genetic diseases, many of them rare and difficult to diagnose. While it used to take more than a month to decode the DNA of an infant, STAT-Seq can accurately analyze a blood sample within 50 hours. Those two days can be the difference between life and death for critically ill newborns.
While digital 3D printers are becoming much more commonplace than high-speed gene sequencers, these nifty machines are at the center of a pediatrics revolution. 3D printers, which cost a few thousands dollars, can be programed to build customize objects layer by layer out of plastic, ceramics, or resin. Doctors are now using these high-tech tools with more exotic materials to model a patient’s anatomy, plan and practice procedures, and even to create tissue.
At the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, doctors are using 3D printers to make life-sized models of pediatric patients’ hearts to adapt to their unique structures before surgery. In Ann Arbor, doctors at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital used a 3D printer in an emergency situation to create an airway splint to keep a baby breathing. The device was created from a type of plastic that the body could slowly absorb and replace with healthy tissue. And going where no one has ever gone, British researchers have used 3D printers to create droplets of living human embryonic stem cells. As innovation meets pediatric healthcare, the most vulnerable among us truly are the next digital generation benefitting from the progress of medtech.