Stories about: Innovation

Building precision medicine: Power to the patients

Tools to build precision medicinePrecision medicine involves the development and application of targeted therapeutics based on patients’ genomes, lifestyles and environments. The recent conference on precision medicine at Harvard Medical School highlighted a few challenges in scaling up this process.

To help further precision medicine, the Obama administration and NIH launched the All of Us program, registrations for which are slated to start later this year. Its aim is to collect health data from one million Americans.

But the conference also highlighted several tools that patients can use proactively to collect, share and analyze their own data and use it to improve their own health — and contribute to precision medicine as citizen scientists.

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A new inlet to treating neurological disease

Image of brains showing red tracer dye, indicating passage of molecules through the blood-brain barrier
These brain images tell a story about the blood-brain barrier: At left, the brain before injection of red tracer dye. At center, an injection of tracer dye shows only a small amount of molecules can infiltrate the blood brain barrier. At right, a new approach for crossing the blood-brain barrier increases the tracer’s penetration into brain tissue.

The blood-brain barrier was designed by nature to protect the brain and central nervous system (CNS) from toxins and other would-be invaders in the body’s circulating blood. Made up of tightly-packed cells, the barrier allows nutrients to pass into the CNS and waste products from the brain to be flushed out, while blocking entry of harmful substances.

A dysfunctional blood-brain barrier can contribute to CNS diseases including Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis (MS). But, ironically, the same blood-brain barrier can keep out drugs intended to treat CNS disease. Scientists have long been seeking ways to overcome this obstacle.

Now, Timothy Hla, PhD, and members of his laboratory in the Boston Children’s Hospital Vascular Biology Program have found a way to selectively control openings in the blood brain barrier to allow passage of small drug molecules.

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Caremap: Mobile app lets families track their children’s health, their way

Caremap
Carson Domey fires up Caremap

Family caregivers — as well as older children and adolescents — now have a powerful health data tracker. With a free iPhone app called Caremap, they can securely store and organize vital medical information, share it with health professionals, track health metrics important to them and gain insights to inform care.

For Michelle Domey, that means keeping close tabs on her son Carson’s Crohn’s disease. It means understanding early warning signs and what triggers a flare, like not getting enough sleep. “When he has a flare, the app is something we could take into an appointment,” she says. “We have historical data that can show us what may have triggered it.”

Available for free in the iTunes App Store, Caremap was developed by Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) in collaboration with Duke Health System. It was built using Apple’s open source CareKit framework.

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Building a clinician-centric healthcare accelerator

busy doctors need a boost from healthcare accelerators

Who better to innovate in healthcare than doctors, nurses and others on the front lines? They know what’s broken. They want to fix it. And they understand healthcare’s complexity. Some have taken part in hackathons and pitch competitions. But once these events are over, most find they’re too busy to develop their ideas and that they lack the necessary business expertise.

In Harvard Business Review this week, leaders of the Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) at Boston Children’s Hospital, with Kevin Churchwell, MD, executive VP of health affairs, describe how (and why) the hospital formed an in-house accelerator program in 2016. In a single year, the program engaged more than 300 clinicians, researchers and administrators in more than 25 clinical departments, offering custom, “just in time” support. Nine projects were accelerated, including three new startups.

A central tactic is the “Opportunity SPRINT,” a 90-minute triage session that brings hospital teams together with business strategists, subject matter experts, technologists and, sometimes, parents and patients. Even when an idea isn’t immediately embraced, SPRINTs are designed to be educational and constructive, inspiring clinicians to reimagine their idea and come back with a better one.

Read more in HBR and check out IDHA’s portfolio.

 

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Under the hood of healthcare innovation: Jared Hawkins and the digital phenotype

Jared Hawkins Boston Children's Hospital

What does it take to change healthcare for the better? In the second of a two-part series on digital health innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital, we profile Jared Hawkins, MMSc, PhD. Like Gajen Sunthara, MSc, featured in part one, Hawkins was named among MedTech Boston’s 40 Under 40 Healthcare Innovators for 2017.

Jared Hawkins, director of informatics at Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA), brings a formidable skill set to his work. With a PhD in Immunology from Tufts University School of Medicine and an MMSc in Biomedical Informatics from Harvard Medical School, his background combines biomedical research (immunology, virology, oncology, genomics) with data science, visualization, computational modeling and software development.

His current work spans an equally diverse range of topics, touching on population and public health, patient experience, decision support and pharmacogenomics. A faculty member in the Computational Health Informatics Program, Hawkins is wired into the digital health ecosystem. He serves as a scientific advisor and co-founder of Raiing Medical (home temperature and fertility tracking) and is the head of engineering and co-founder of Circulation (non-emergency medical transportation via Uber).

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Under the hood of healthcare innovation: Gajen Sunthara and leveraging EHRs

Gajen Sunthara
(Photo: Greg Weintraub)

What does it take to be an innovator changing our healthcare system for the better? This two-part series profiles two digital health innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital who were named among MedTech Boston’s 40 Under 40 Healthcare Innovators for 2017.

Gajen Sunthara, MSc, has two innovation passions: healthcare policy and electronic health records (EHRs). With professional experiences spanning technology, business and government, he finds himself in a position to effect change in a way that few others can.

“Gajen’s passion for healthcare is evident from the moment that you meet him,” says Farhanah Sheets, a software engineer at Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) who reports to Sunthara. “No matter how big or small the idea, he brings a level of excitement to each project that is contagious.”

As director of Innovation R&D for IDHA, Sunthara is leading significant efforts around EHR interoperability — the ability of healthcare information systems to exchange and use each other’s data. He’s also focused on creating applications that can easily be integrated into any EHR system.

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Predicting influenza outbreaks faster with a digitally-empowered wearable device

Influenza viruses. Outbreaks can be predicted using digital health tools like Thermia.The Thermia online health educational tool, developed at Boston Children’s Hospital, has enabled one-month-faster prediction of seasonal influenza outbreaks in China, via its digital integration with a commercially-available wearable thermometer. The findings appear in a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

 “The fact that we were able to predict influenza outbreaks faster than China’s national surveillance programs really shows the capacity for everyday, wearable digital health devices to track the spread of disease at the population level,” says the study’s lead author Yulin Hswen, who is a research fellow in Boston Children’s Computational Epidemiology Group and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

China has 620 million mobile internet users who can theoretically access the standalone Thermia application from any computer, smartphone or even the Amazon Alexa assistant.

Although the Boston Children’s team has previously demonstrated that social media can be used to track disease, this is the first time they’ve shown that outbreaks can be predicted through an integrated wearable device and online tool.

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Preparing patients and families to manage ventricular assist devices

Beth Hawkins ventricular assist devices

Children in severe heart failure sometimes have a ventricular assist device (VAD) implanted in their chest. VADs are electrically-powered heart pumps that can tide children over while they wait for a heart transplant. They can also be implanted long term if a child is ineligible for transplant, or simply buy children time to recover their own heart function.

Because problems with VADs can be life-threatening, families need extensive training in managing the device and its external controller at home. Nurse practitioner Beth Hawkins RN, MSN, FNP-C, and her colleagues in the Boston Children’s VAD Program begin the training at the child’s hospital bedside while they are still in the cardiac ICU. But despite lectures, demos and practice opportunities, the prospect of maintaining a VAD remains terrifying for many parents and children.

“A lot of families feel their child is attached to a ticking time bomb that could go off at any time,” says Hawkins. “Many say taking a child home on a VAD feels like having a newborn baby again.”

Hawkins realized that families needed more support.

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Protein science 2.0: Amping up antibodies

Institute for Protein Innovation antibody libraries
The Institute for Protein Innovation, launching next week with $15 million in grants and philanthropy, aims to develop comprehensive, open-source libraries of antibodies targeting human proteins.

It began with the proteins. Before Watson and Crick unraveled DNA’s double helix in the 1950s, biochemists snipped, ground and pulverized animal tissues to extract and study proteins, the workhorses of the body.

Then, in 1990, the Human Genome Project launched. It promised to uncover the underpinnings of all human biology and the keys to treating disease. Funding for DNA and RNA tools and studies skyrocketed. Meanwhile, protein science fell behind.

While genomics unveiled a wealth of information, including the identity of genes that lead to disease when mutated, researchers still do not fully understand what all the genes really do and how mutations change their function and cause disease.

Now proteins are promising to provide the missing link.

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#TBT: How hyperbaric heart surgery saved infants’ lives in the 1960s

Boston Children’s surgical team entering the hyperbaric chamber, loaned from Harvard School of Public Health.
Boston Globe clipping about hyperbaric chamber
From the Boston Sunday Globe, Feb. 10, 1963.

In 1962, the Harvard School of Public Health made a critical loan to Boston Children’s Hospital: the Harvard hyperbaric chamber. It established a new approach to pediatric heart surgery at Boston Children’s.

For many children — including a premature infant named Janet, born in 1964 with a heart murmur — the hyperbaric chamber would prove to be life-saving.

At that time, before the invention of the heart-lung bypass machine, hyperbaric chambers offered a way to operate on infants more safely. That’s because hyperbaric oxygenation, coupled with the effects of increased pressure on the respiratory system, seemed to give infants a better chance of surviving heart surgery.

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