Jason Kahn, PhD, is a co-founder of Neuro’motion, a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a part-time instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Earlier this month, I traveled to SXSW Interactive 2015 to introduce my company, Neuro’motion. We build mobile video games and toys to build emotional strength in children, improve access to mental health care and provide a drug-free alternative for behavioral health. We were born from research at Boston Children’s Hospital and our mission is to get our games into as many people’s hands as possible.
Our daughter, Saoirse, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 11 months old. Her care, safety and comfort were our first priorities. When she had a PICC line and later a central line placed to infuse drugs and fluids, we saw a need for a better way to keep these lines safe and secure without using skin-damaging tape and irritating mesh netting. Saoirse was tugging at her lines and trying to pull off the tape, so I handmade a fabric sleeve for her PICC line and a chest wrap for her central line, and she went back to playing and being a kid.
Judy Wang, MS, is a program manager in the Telehealth Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
In 2012, when I attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference for the first time, health tech was still an emerging field. It was the first year the world’s leading conference for emerging technology and digital creativity made any effort to include health tech programming, and the first time its Accelerator pitch event included a category for health tech startups.
Only three years later, SXSW Interactive (March 13–17, 2015) has grown to include almost 50 events related to health and medical technologies. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of the biotech company United Therapeutics, gave a keynote titled “AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves” that was both inspiring and provocative. She spoke to a world in which our 24/7 selves are increasingly being captured digitally. Audience questions captured by Twitter pondered the ethical implications of what Rothblatt called “mind clones”: future mechanical beings digitally programmed with our mannerisms, habits and memories.
From a series on researchers and innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital. At left, David Casavant demos TeleCAPE at a Boston Children’s Hospital Innovators Showcase.
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, so when David Casavant, MD, observed his teenagers routinely using FaceTime and Skype to connect with friends, he had a lightbulb moment. Could videoconferencing help him support his patients—children and young adults who require mechanical ventilation in their homes?
“It just seemed obvious,” says Casavant, a physician in the Boston Children’s Hospital’s CAPE (Critical Care, Anesthesia and Perioperative Extension & Home Ventilation) program, part of the Division of Critical Care Medicine. “In my work we are always weighing the risk versus the benefit to the patient. It’s easy for ambulatory patients to swing by their primary care office, get a prescription or go for an x-ray, but that’s not the case for patients who have to have their oxygen, their suction or their ventilator. If you don’t have to put them on the road you are better off not to.”
Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and current CEO of Buzzcar, envisions collaboration as the future of the world’s economy. Her concept, PeersIncorporated, brings excess capacity of consumer goods or assets—such as unused time or untapped data—to online platforms and apps where consumers (“peers”) provide insights that drive business growth.
Speaking recently at Boston Children’s Hospital, Chase elaborated on the concept of excess capacity, which is the basis of Buzzcar. Typically, families pay an average of $9,000 a year—$25 a day—for cars they use only 5 percent of the time. That unused time represents value and economic potential. Buzzcar’s platform harnesses that unused capacity, allowing multiple peers to supply and book cars on an easy-to-use website at a low cost.
Can you describe your work and its potential impact on patient care?
We modeled a form of heart-muscle disease in a dish. To do this, we converted skin cells from patients with a genetic heart muscle disease into stem cells, which we then instructed to turned into cardiomyocytes (heart-muscle cells) that have the genetic defect. We then worked closely with bioengineers to fashion the cells into contracting tissues, a “heart-on-a-chip.”
How was the idea that sparked this innovation born?
This innovation combined the fantastic, ground-breaking advances from many other scientists. It is always best to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Since its causative gene was sequenced in the 1980s, cystic fibrosis (CF) has been the “textbook” genetic disease. Several thousand mutations have been identified in the CFTR protein, which regulates the flow of chloride in and out of cells. When CFTR is lost or abnormal, thick mucus builds up, impairing patients’ lungs, liver, pancreas, and digestive and reproductive systems, and making their lungs prone to opportunistic infections.
But new research could add a chapter to the textbook, pinpointing an unexpected environmental cause of CF-like illness. A study reported in the February 5 New England Journal of Medicine found that people with arsenic poisoning have high chloride levels in their sweat—the classic diagnostic sign of CF.
Life teems with interactions. Proteins bind. Bonds form between atoms, and break. Enzymes cut. Drugs attach to cell receptors. DNA hybridizes. Those interactions make the processes of life work, and capturing them has led to many medical advances.
Technologies abound for studying molecular-level interactions quantitatively. But most are complex and expensive, requiring dedicated instruments and specific training on how to prep samples and run the experiments.
Wong and his team, including graduate student Mounir Koussa and postdoctoral fellows Ken Halvorsen, PhD (now at the RNA Institute) and Andrew Ward, PhD, have created an alternative method that democratizes the process. Using electrophoresis gels, found in just about any biomedical laboratory, they’ve developed what they call DNA nanoswitches. These switches let researchers make interaction measurements without complex instruments, at a cost of pennies per sample.
DIPG isn’t like most brain tumors. Rather than forming a solid mass, it weaves itself among the nerve fibers of the pons—a structure in the brain stem that controls vital functions like breathing, blood pressure and heart rate—making it impossible to biopsy. At least, that’s been the dogma.
Status epilepticus, a life-threatening form of persistent seizure activity in the brain, is challenging to treat. It requires hospitalization in an intensive care unit, constant monitoring and meticulous medication adjustment. An automated, intelligent monitoring system developed by clinicians and engineers at Boston Children’s Hospital could transform ICU care for this neurological emergency.
Typically, children in status epilepticus are first given powerful, short-acting seizure medications. If their seizures continue, they may need to be placed in a medically induced coma, using long-acting sedatives or general anesthetics. “The goal,” explains biomedical engineer Christos Papadelis, PhD, “is to supply enough sedating medication to suppress brain activity and protect the brain from damage, while at the same time avoiding over-sedation.”