Coming down the track are a slew of futuristic-sounding inventions that could soon help doctors spot illnesses more quickly and effectively than ever before. Here, we take a look at some of the most exciting developments on the horizon.
The robots that can detect depression
Artificial intelligence (AI) means computers can “learn” from the information they receive to become more accurate. Scientists believe that this type of technology has huge potential to be used in health care.
Studies have already found it can be used to “teach” computers to spot tiny changes in brain scans to predict Alzheimer’s disease a full six years before it can be diagnosed by doctors, as well as identifying genetic conditions using facial recognition technology.
AI software can also pick up early warning signs that someone is suffering from depression by scanning social media to detect changes in the content and pattern of posts. Systems like this could benefit patients by spotting problems early through observing ‘unobtrusively’, researchers suggest.
British AI expert Prof Noel Sharkey, from the University of Sheffield, says: ‘Deep learning and other similar statistical methods are the best pattern recognition tools that have ever existed. If they are inducted with a sufficiently large quantity of disease data they can extract higher order patterns better than humans.
‘This is turning out to be a wonderful technology for the early diagnosis of a list of diseases that will just keep growing.’
The breathalyser that detects cancer
Only around half of cancer patients are diagnosed in the early stages, but improving early diagnosis rates could be by creating simpler diagnostic tests.
Cambridge researchers have invented a machine that is capable of detecting cancer biomarkers in breath — chemicals from waste products emitted by cancerous tumours. It gives results to patients within two days, instead of the two weeks for traditional biopsies.
The idea was pioneered by Dr Billy Boyle, whose wife, Kate Gross, a former adviser to Tony Blair, died from cancer aged 36.
After successful pilot studies, a two-year trial on 1,500 patients has launched at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, to test the breathalyser’s ability to spot common cancers such as those of the stomach, prostate and kidney.
The pinprick blood test to detect a stroke
A patient’s chance of surviving a stroke without disability is hugely improved if they quickly receive anti-clotting medication — but this all depends on how quickly doctors can make a diagnosis.
Ischemic strokes are currently diagnosed through a series of time-consuming tests, including CAT scans. But a team of researchers based at the University of Warwick are currently trialling a new sensor that can spot a stroke using just a drop of blood. The device, being tested at hospitals in Coventry and Warwickshire, detects levels of purine, a blood compound that is produced in greater quantities when it is starved of oxygen during a stroke.
Prof Nick Dale, who is leading the research, explains: ‘Our data suggests that purine levels, as a rapidly produced biomarker, can be used in the diagnosis of stroke from the very first moments after symptom onset.’
The spinal tap that can diagnose Alzheimer’s
Most cases of Alzheimer’s are diagnosed through memory tests, but for the one in 10 patients for whom these are inconclusive, the road to diagnosis can be a long one.
Last year, health watchdog Nice introduced new guidance encouraging doctors to use cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tests to diagnose Alzheimer’s in such cases. This involves testing fluid from the spine for markers of the disease after extracting it using a needle in a procedure known as a lumbar puncture, or “spinal tap”.
The test is significantly cheaper than scans, and research has found it can identify Alzheimer’s earlier and more accurately than traditional tests, enabling patients to access support sooner.
DNA test that spots cancer
Currently, many cancer patients need biopsies before a firm diagnosis — where a small piece of the suspected tumour is removed for testing. But this can be invasive and results can take several days.
Liquid DNA analysis, also known as a liquid biopsy, is a new, far less invasive technique that involves analysing blood samples for genetic markers instead.
The technology is still being developed, but a recent report by the Royal College of Surgeons of England suggests liquid DNA analysis could be widely used as a diagnostic tool for breast cancer within a decade.
The report said: ‘A “liquid biopsy” might provide an even better view of a tumour, compared to a solid biopsy of the tumour itself, thus avoiding an invasive procedure for the patient.’
Sepsis blood test that screens for 300 bacteria at once
Five people are killed every hour in the UK alone by sepsis, an immune-system overreaction to infection or injury. Sepsis-triggering infections can be treated with antibiotics, but diagnosing which bacteria are to blame in order to give targeted treatments can take multiple tests over several days.
Researchers at Columbia University, in New York, have created a computer platform that can screen for all known human bacteria at once. It takes around 70 hours, just under three days, for it to analyse a sample for the signature DNA of 307 different bugs.
It has been described as a “huge leap forward” from the most advanced test currently in use, which can detect just 19 different bacteria at a time. The platform is still under development, but researchers believe the testing time will only reduce as computer power increases in future.
Smartphone ultrasound for diagnosis on the go
Delays in getting vital tests can slow down diagnosis. Scans, in particular, often require large, expensive machinery and so have traditionally been carried out in hospitals or specialist units, which can have long waiting lists.
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One solution is to use modern smartphone technology to perform scans instead. Health care tech company Philips has developed a gadget, Lumify, which turns a smartphone or tablet into a portable ultrasound machine. The device, already being used by more than 40 British NHS trusts, means doctors can scan patients at the bedside, at home or even at the scene of an emergency for an instant diagnosis.