When technology meets human health, it catalyses breakthroughs and life-changing discoveries. As we know, the practice of regularly washing hands was tied closely to the invention of indoor plumbing. Drinking fluids besides water to avoid the plague aligned with breakthroughs in beer brewing. Researchers developed the first antibiotics alongside experiments and advancements in inoculations.
This generation’s breakthrough is undoubtedly in the power of “digital” healthcare. Digital health is a set of modern tools that make healthcare more accessible and affordable, and it came to the fore as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telehealth appointments, app-based medical records, and online public health trackers became more mainstream out of necessity and now have solidified their place (and preference!) among consumers.
While most patients only used the “end versions” of these products, their introduction came from nearly a decade of discoveries in web3, machine learning and deep research. Developers, together with physicians and clinicians, are creating tech platforms that make health more accessible and attainable - here are a few of the most exciting advancements changing our medical care.
Artificial Intelligence in healthcare
Artificial intelligence (AI) is most known as the tech powering self-driving cars, image generators and other high-tech applications. But there are far more human applications outside our computers and parking lots. Scientists are using AI to discover new drugs and drug applications, making a traditionally time-consuming and expensive process highly efficient - and affordable. Tech unicorn Insilico Medicine is a fantastic example of how a trial-and-error-driven process has become more precise using this technology.
In just 30 months, Insilico Medicine’s treatment for pulmonary fibrosis became the first AI-discovered drug to reach in-human trials, and its AI tool is used by leading pharmaceutical companies worldwide. This is a significant breakthrough compared to the typical three to six years needed for a drug to reach Phase 1 trials after initial discovery. This past month, Insilico launched its new sixth-generation intelligent robotics drug discovery laboratory focused on target discovery, compound screening, precision medicine development and translational research.
Artificial intelligence also powers personalised medicine, one of the most promising areas of digital health. Individualised treatments are more effective because they are adjusted to a patient’s unique health profile. Personalised medicine approaches evaluate their genetics, disease characteristics, and medical history to come up with the most productive care plan.
For example, startups like PreComb Therapeutics are using AI to develop testing methods for more targeted cancer treatment plans. The company creates small-scale test models using biopsied patient samples called “twin tumours.” They then use AI to conduct treatment testing on the twin tumours to see which protocols guarantee the best results. AI-powered approaches like this are also driving new approaches to treating obesity, psychiatry and heart diseases.
Blockchain and decentralisation in healthcare
Blockchain is one of the most well-known forms of distributed ledger technology (DLT). It is the backbone of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, and its immutable record of secure transactions is a powerful resource for healthcare. During the initial COVID vaccine rollout, several countries, including Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, introduced digital vaccine passports as a more legible and reliable alternative to handwritten records. In the following months, international organisations and blockchain companies explored how blockchain can make these applications more secure and trusted. These applications show that well-applied blockchain technology can improve existing digital health.
Many consider the current state of DLT to be “web2.5,” a bridge to fully decentralised web3 technology. Powerful accelerators like Cryptan Labs and platforms like IoTeX are building this bridge for the industry by helping companies of all sizes integrate decentralised and emerging technologies into their work.
We also see the use of blockchain and DLT in advancing clinical trials. Longenesis is an award-winning Latvian startup that uses blockchain to streamline data-sharing for sponsors and participants in clinical trials. Its tools make participant consent a fast and easy process, and users can withdraw their data at any time. Digital participation is increasingly common in clinical healthcare, and blockchain advances its usability by ensuring patient consent and trusted records. Thanks to tools like Longenesis, patients can experience the best of digital health and feel empowered to participate in trials in the best way for their needs.
Beyond blockchain-protected health records, DLT is also revolutionising scientific funding. Decentralised science, or DeSci, integrates emerging technologies like NFTs and smart contracts for increased transparency in funding. With DeSci, researchers can receive support from crowdfunding and online communities, freeing them from reliance on grants from funding institutions (that often may overlook very early-stage projects). This digital-forward approach is breaking down traditional funding barriers and bringing more people into the scientific community.
What digital health means for human longevity
We are well on our way to longer and healthier lives. Digital health applications like the ones I’ve mentioned above all contribute to human longevity. (I use longevity to mean responsibly extending the human lifespan, incorporating the treatment and prevention of ageing-related diseases as well as revitalisation and day-to-day health.) Wearables help individuals understand how their bodies react to routine changes and support movement and quality sleep. Telehealth facilitates connections between longevity physicians and patients, regardless of location. Genetic counselling empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their health and reproduction based on their unique genomic makeup. And there is even more to come.
The new wave of digital health I’ve explored above is also revitalising the field. Funding initiatives, including Longevity Science Foundation, LongeVC, and Lifespan.io are making digital-friendly funding a reality by providing community-supported grants for research and welcoming donations using digital currencies like crypto. Scientists are using AI to track biomarkers and monitor biological ageing while also identifying new drugs to treat conditions like cancer and Alzheimer’s. In the blockchain space, companies and individuals are taking a significant interest in the longevity field and donating time, technology and resources to startups.
The field of longevity medicine is relatively new, but it is quickly adopting the best technologies to establish and expand. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon. As we live longer than any human generation before, we also want to live well. Prioritising technology-driven digital health can make this modern care more accessible, attainable and future-proof.