America's Greatest Disruptors: Medical Marvels

America's Greatest Disruptors Medical Marvels

Pushing the technological boundaries of health care


FE Cover Disruptors GRID

An Affordable Bionic Hand

FE Disruptors Medical Aadeel Akhtar
Skot Wiedmann

AADEEL AKHTAR — FOUNDER AND CEO, PSYONIC

When Aadeel Akhtar was 7 years old, he met a little girl who changed his life. His parents took him to see family in Pakistan, where they'd been born, and they were walking into a store when he saw her. She was missing her right leg. "That was actually the first time I had met someone with a limb difference," he says. "She was about my age, using a tree branch as a crutch, living in poverty."

He never learned her name, never spoke to her or saw her again. But he never forgot her. He got a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and now, at 34, is founder and head of an Illinois company called Psyonic. He and his team of about 30 make prosthetic limbs that are smart, durable, responsive to their users' needs and—this is key—affordable. In the U.S., Medicare says it will cover the cost of Psyonic's prosthetics, and Akhtar says other insurers will probably follow. It's estimated that at least 1.6 million Americans live with the loss of a limb, and Akhtar says only 10 percent of those who needed bionic limbs in the past could afford them. Medicare's approval should ultimately increase that to 75 percent.

"We're pushing the boundaries of what's possible, but also making them accessible and leveling the playing field for all those people who couldn't get access to this kind of technology before," Akhtar says.

Psyonic put its first commercial product, called the Ability Hand, on the market nationally in September. In size and design, it resembles a natural hand, albeit with batteries and electronics packed inside. Akhtar says the fingers come close to mimicking the movements of human fingers, and they give instant feedback—the limb vibrates against your skin when its fingers meet resistance, signaling that if you're gripping something delicate (say, an egg or your child's hand) you should stop squeezing. Electrodes in the base of the hand sense when you tighten existing muscles and use those signals to make the fingers move.

Akhtar gathered input from military veterans who tried out prototypes; other testers had lost limbs in accidents or to disease. "They were using technology that hadn't changed in, like, several decades. And we wanted to upgrade them to the 21st-century," he says. He's worked for years with Dan St. Pierre, a commercial diver who lost his left hand in 2009. In a video, St. Pierre, wearing the Ability Hand, catches a water bottle tossed his way. Akhtar also arm wrestles him, and, of course, loses.

"I spent many years trying to find a good prosthetic that worked and did what I needed it to do, and I couldn't find it," says St. Pierre.

Other prosthetics on the market tend to be either rudimentary (a hook) or expensive (up to $70,000). Akhtar says the Ability Hand costs clinicians $10,000 to $20,000, depending on the user's needs. The Psyonic team saved money by making molds for parts with 3D printing. While much of the hand is made from carbon fiber, many parts are silicone or rubber, materials which are both cheap and flexible. Users had complained that earlier prostheses, made of hard molded plastics, easily broke.

Eventually Akhtar would like to make prosthetic legs and expand overseas. He says he can imagine, someday, a surgically attached prosthetic—no batteries needed because movements would be controlled by the user's tendons. But for now, he says he's enabling one person at a time.

"Our veterans, they've gone through hell," he says. "And to be able to give them something back—that's been incredibly rewarding." —Ned Potter


SYNTHETIC DNA AT COMMERCIAL SCALE

FE Disruptors Medical Emily Leproust
Twist BioScience

EMILY LEPROUST — CO-FOUNDER, CEO, TWIST BIOSCIENCE

Making DNA from scratch is typically expensive, prone to error and not easily scalable. Twist has found a way to help automate and commercialize the process by creating a technology for writing synthetic DNA onto tiny silicon chips. The silicon chip allows Twist to miniaturize the chemistry of making DNA, enabling it to be manufactured cheaply and easily distributed to pharmaceutical companies and research labs. The technology has already had a big impact on public health: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Twist created a synthetic version of SARS-CoV-2 that was used in tests. Eventually, their synthetic DNA could also help identify specific cancers for targeted treatments and lead to ways of making spider silk at an industrial scale. This year, Twist launched Exome 2.0, a tool for bioscientists to analyze genes responsible for rare diseases and genetic disorders. —Meghan Gunn


Medicine Delivered By Mist

FE Disruptors Medical Madhavi and Rathi
Illustration by Alex Fine; Source photos courtesy of Droplette

MADHAVI GAVINI, RATHI SRINIVAS — CO-FOUNDERS, DROPLETTE

For people who suffer from epidermolysis bullosa, disorders that cause the skin to become fragile and blister, applying topical treatments is a painful ordeal. Madhavi Gavini and Rathi Srinivas looked for a better way to deliver medical help. Their solution: a handheld device that acts like a nebulizer and can deliver treatments and pain relievers via a superfine and powerful mist that penetrates deep into the skin. While developing the technology, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, the two inventors decided to broaden its applicability to more common skincare concerns, such as treating wrinkles and blemishes with retinal, collagen and glycolic acid mist treatments. The pair say their device allows the skin to absorb larger molecules than are typical in topical treatments.

The approach has garnered glowing reviews in InStyle, Laptop Mag and other publications. More than 1 million of its skincare treatment capsules been sold since it launched a year ago. The pair is also working with researchers from MIT, Tufts and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research on developing the device, called Droplette, for a variety of diseases including genetic disorders, wounds and skin infections. NASA, too, has come calling, awarding them a grant to test aspects of their tech on the International Space Station. "They were fascinated by the fluid physics that drives our device," says Srinivas. —Kerri Anne Renzulli


A Dissolvable Pacemaker

FE Disruptors Medical John Rogers
Chris Strong/Northwestern University

JOHN A. ROGERS — DIRECTOR, QUERREY SIMPSON INSTITUTE FOR BIOELECTRONICS, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

For patients who need temporary help regulating their heartbeat, such as those who've had open-heart surgery, a heart attack or a drug overdose, Rogers and his team created a new kind of implantable pacemaker—wireless, battery-free and, best of all, dissolvable. After five to seven weeks, the pacemaker, made of natural materials like silicone and magnesium, is absorbed by the body. Since patients don't require surgery to remove the device, they avoid the attendant risks of infection, tissue damage and blood clots. Rogers' device gets its energy wirelessly from a small device placed on the chest.

The pacemaker is the second biodegradable implant for Rogers—the first, developed in 2018, speeds the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. Although both devices need further development and testing before they can become commercial products, Rogers is confident that biodegradable electronics have a future in medical devices to monitor and treat a range of conditions. —K.R.


COMMUNICATING BY THINKING, NOT TALKING

FE Disruptors Medical Thomas Oxley
Britt Spencer

THOMAS OXLEY — CEO, SYNCHRON

In his practice as an interventional neurologist, Dr. Oxley has treated paralyzed stroke patients who were unable to communicate with loved ones and carers. A few years ago, he began working on the idea of bypassing speech and connecting his patients' brains directly to a computer, so they could communicate merely by thinking. As founding CEO of Synchron, he helped develop a tiny device, called a Stentrode, that a surgeon snakes into the brain through the blood vessels, where it acts as a brain-computer interface.

Last year, two paralyzed patients in Australia used Stentrode implants to text and type words just by thinking about them. The implant converts signals from the patient's neurons into commands, which are beamed wirelessly to a computer. The surgical procedure takes two hours and involves no cutting of the skull or sewing wires onto the brain's surface. In July, Synchron got the green light from the FDA to start clinical trials. If all goes well, Synchron's technology could help patients with neurological damage and paralysis communicate with family, share business ideas with colleagues, pay their bills—in short, to reclaim their lives. —M.G.


Robot Medical Assistants

FE Disruptors Medical Andrea and Vivian
Diligent Robotics

ANDREA THOMAZ, VIVIAN CHU - CO-FOUNDERS, DILIGENT ROBOTICS

To increase the amount of time nurses and other medical staff have for patient care, Andrea Thomaz and Vivian Chu designed a robot, called Moxi, to tackle menial tasks—such as delivering personal protective equipment and medicines, carrying tests or lab samples, and picking up or dropping off items to patients—which can consume 30 percent of a shift.

The idea proved critical during the pandemic, when staff were overwhelmed with patients and had to impose protocols to lessen transmission risk. In a single shift, Moxi can complete as many as 75 different 10-minute tasks, freeing hours of nursing staff time to care for patients. Moxi is already used in several Texas health care systems, recently launched at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, and is currently integrating into a half dozen other health care systems. "Instead of having robots that take jobs away from humans," says Chu, "we wanted to create robots that eased the stress and workload of one of the most demanding jobs in society, nursing." —K.R.

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