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Indie Economics

We really are living in the (medical) future

David Brancaccio Jul 28, 2014
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We live in the future.

That’s not my phrase; it is my daughter Madeleine’s invention. True, the monorails remain few and far between, but every once in a while I get a reminder that some of what was once science fiction is no longer fiction.

Recently, I got to spend a bit of time with a physicist and physician who says she is trying to do for medicine what Google did for information technology. Her idea is democratize healthcare so that the big stuff doesn’t always have to go through professional gatekeepers.

Anita Goel is the chairman and scientific director of Nanobiosym, and chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym Diagnostics. Dr. Goel and her team have come up with a device about the size of an iPad that will be able to tell people if they have malaria, TB, HIV, even cancer. Stick some blood in the thing, and it will look for the genetic markers of a variety of conditions and render a verdict on the spot. The company’s Gene-RADAR system is a little medical lab on a microchip, made possible by advances in nanotechnology. Her work recently won the grand prize in the Nokia Sensing X-Challenge.

The technology may end up in homes or at a clinic near you. If this sounds farfetched, remember that once upon a time you had to visit a doctor’s office to get your blood pressure checked. Now you can go down to a strip mall or pharmacy, put your arm into a cuff, press the green button and see how you are doing. Or, you might buy a small digital blood pressure reader from a drugstore and use it it at home.

Imagine if this Gene-RADAR technology deployed in the developing world, where doctors, health workers, and clinics are either overburdened or hard to reach. It is likely that the existing rules guiding medical diagnostics would have to change to accommodate this technology if gene-sensing diagnostics are to become widespread. Companies with stakes in the existing ways of doing things will either adapt, or could try to thwart the adoption of something that let’s consumers check their own health conditions. 

Dr. Goel and her team are among the contestants in a competition that will award $10 million to those who come up with a Tricorder, a hand-held device that’ll identify a list of 15 diseases. It’s the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. The award ceremony is set for a year from January.

Click on the media player above to hear Dr. Anita Goel in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio

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