ilicon Valley has audacious plans for shaking up the way we diagnose — and cure — disease.
But the life sciences are far more challenging than the tech titans of this world might realize: There are countless regulatory hurdles, health care delivery obstacles, and — most of all — the challenge of untangling the extraordinarily complex biology of the human body.
Still, giants like Apple, Google, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft are charging ahead. Here, a look at three diseases they’re attacking with a vengeance … and how they might stumble:
CNBC this week broke the news that Steve Jobs launched a secret project before his death to develop a way to monitor diabetics’ glucose levels without poking them with needles or embedding sensors under their skin. Apple’s effort seems to involve developing optical sensors that would shine a light through patients’ skin to measure blood sugar levels.
It’s not the only giant in the field: Verily, the life sciences arm of Google parent company Alphabet, has been working on a “smart” glucose-sensing contact lens with Novartis for several years now.
Such devices could revolutionize treatment for millions of people with diabetes. (And, not incidentally, bring in huge revenue.) But cracking the problem has proved extraordinarily difficult.
Efforts have been underway since the 1970s, at least, to reliably measure glucose without piercing skin. They’ve failed. Take, for instance, Newton Photonics, a Boston-area startup that chipped away at this challenge for more than a decade before folding.
Verily, too, has struggled, despite its wealth and brainpower, as STAT reported last fall. Tears turn out to be an unreliable way to measure blood sugar. Same goes for other fluids, like sweat and saliva; they don’t always don’t accurately reflect blood sugar levels, since they’re affected by temperature and humidity.
That’s probably why analysts aren’t concerned that Apple’s top-secret project will hit gold.
“One can never say never, but it is extremely unlikely Apple has succeeded where so many others have failed,” Cowen analyst Doug Schenkel wrote in a client note. He covers medical device maker Dexcom, which has been working with Verily on a separate effort to miniaturize a minimally invasive glucose monitor. And he wrote that he saw no reason to view Apple as competition:
“Until we see data that suggests otherwise,” he wrote, “we are not worried.”
Microsoft raised some eyebrows last fall with its bold pledge to “solve cancer” within a decade. The disease — actually, many different diseases — is a far more complex puzzle than, say, a Rubik’s cube, but the company has assembled what the Telegraph calls a “small army” of top biologists, programmers, and engineers with orders to find a way to reprogram malignant cells so they can return to a healthy state.
Intel, meanwhile, is jumping into the diagnostic sphere: Its “All In One Day” initiative aims to get cancer patients a personalized diagnosis and treatment plan, based on their lifestyle, environment, and genetics, within 24 hours. (It can now take weeks to get a tumor analyzed and sort through treatment options.)
Not one to be left behind, IBM has gone all out with its IBM Watson artificial intelligence system. The computerized brain is working on ways to help doctors understand and assess treatment options.
Can such efforts make a difference? Maybe. But remember that when the first chemotherapies were developed in the 1950s, many scientists genuinely believed that cancer would soon be cured. That hasn’t happened, despite waves of scientific advance in the decades since.
And even if Silicon Valley does deliver a useful project, the rest of the health care system will need time to catch up and work through issues such as patient privacy and data security.
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for instance, in 2013 launched an ambitious attempt to use IBM Watson to match patients to clinical trials and help doctors better choose a course of treatment. The project got glowing media coverage. But a recent audit found multiple problems with the implementation of the system, and said it did not meet its goals. The debacle cost the hospital $62 million.
They say it’s less about living forever, and more about living better. But Silicon Valley is still chasing longevity, in hopes of understanding the genetic underpinnings of aging — and ultimately prolonging human life.
Google’s ultra-secretive spinout Calico is working to detangle the mass of genes that contribute to longevity. Also on the docket: developing therapeutics that might stall the protein degradation typically seen in aging.
Wealthy tech titans are also funding anti-aging efforts, as the New Yorker recently pointed out. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel have donated huge sums to help researchers find a way to cheat death.
Problem is, there isn’t one root problem associated with getting old: Multiple systems fail in tandem. And discoveries that once seemed promising have not translated into quick-fix therapies. Take telomeres. A few years ago, researchers wagered that these DNA segments, which cap the ends of chromosomes, might be linked to longevity: The longer they are, the longer a life.
But that doesn’t just mean you can slow aging by developing a pill to lengthen your telomeres. With more study, scientists learned that the enzyme that elongates telomeres — called telomerase — is very active in cancer cells. So maybe you don’t want a whole lot of it in circulation.
For now, the concept of aging is like a tightly knotted ball of yarn. Pull one string, and instead of unraveling, everything just gets all the more complex.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately paraphrased an audit of the IBM Watson project at MD Anderson.