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It’s a Wrap: Highlights of Singularity University’s FutureMed 2013

FutureMed 2013 officially came to a close Saturday night. The week brought a compelling glimpse of the future of medicine and healthcare from some of the brightest minds in the field. We hope those who were interested had a chance to check out the live stream of Tuesday’s talks. And if you’re a Singularity Hub Member, look for a selection of the week’s lectures in Singularity Hub’s ‘Video Central’ in the coming weeks. (See here to learn how you can join the Singularity Hub community and here to apply for the next FutureMed!)

Perhaps one of the week’s most inspiring moments came when Jack Andraka’s 15-minute talk, “The Future of Oncology,” brought the room to its feet on Tuesday. Though Andraka is but a sophomore in high school, he’s invented a new diagnostic technique for pancreatic cancer using carbon nanotubes.

Jack Andraka at FutureMed 2013.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive, least detectable forms of the disease. Andraka’s technique is said to be significantly cheaper, faster, and more accurate than current methods. (We’ll have more on Andraka soon—we were able to get a video interview with him after his talk.)

If Andraka is the future, he’s standing on the shoulders of giants like the man who followed him on stage, Dr. Ron Levy, Professor of Medicine, Director of the Lymphoma Program, and Former Chief of the Division of Oncology at Stanford University.

Catherine Mohr, Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, delivered a fascinating lecture on the future of robotic surgery. Robotic surgery isn’t itself the disruptive technology, she said. Rather, as cutting edge diagnostic tools on the molecular level allow oncologists to diagnose earlier and earlier, surgeons will need to remove smaller and smaller tumors. Put simply, robotic surgical systems won’t drive this change—they’ll need to adapt to it.

Mohr may be right, but robots are still really cool. Participants got to work the da Vinci robotic surgical system she set up in a corner of the classroom. (As I overheard her say, “I bring good toys.”) And the week also featured lots of other demos ranging from Ekso Bionics to the Anatomage Anatonomy Table.

IBM’s Marty Kohn and investor Vinod Khosla at FutureMed 2013.

Big data was another prime theme this year. Information that was once limited to a few select individuals in a lab or exclusive scientific community is now available to the public at large. Never mind credentials—great ideas can come from outsiders, peeking in with fresh eyes and a beginner’s mind. Indeed, Andraka used Google, Wikipedia, and free online journal articles to do the initial research behind his diagnostic invention.

Stanford’s Atul Butte told participants, “We’re drowning in data.” Butte’s Stanford lab outsources experiments, finding it more efficient to simply buy data for analysis. Just as kids in garages once built computers, incoming generations will create “garage pharma” and “dormroom biotech.”

Of course, to get there we need to make all that data useful. FutureMed was privileged to hear IBM’s Marty Kohn discuss his quest to bring Watson’s natural language processing skills to medicine. Watson is working with Memorial Sloan Kettering and Cleveland Clinic to learn medicine so it may in the future scan the exponentially growing literature and provide doctors with diagnoses backed by probabalistic chains of logic.

Kohn’s session was paired with famed investor Vinod Khosla who spoke of decreasing the need for physicians and leveraging big data and data analytics to improve diagnostics and outcomes. And later in the week, FutureMed welcomed Dr. Farzad Mostashari, National Coordinator for Health and Information Technology. Mostashari said that by leveraging more connected medical records we can dramatically improve outcomes.

Erez Levneh, found of Vecoy Nanomedicines, showing off his MEDy (Medical Entrepreneurship & Disruption) award.

These were some of the week’s highlights for me, but I didn’t see every speaker. The talk I most regretted missing was Andrew Hessel on synthetic biology—the use of DNA as a programming language to build living systems from the ground up. And I would like to have heard Alan Russel on regenerative medicine and how to speed the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

Saturday’s sold-out special event at the Computer History Museum capped the program with a day of demos, talks, and a pitch contest by 17 biotech and health startups from around the world. Singularity University alum, Erez Livneh, won the pitch contest with his company Vecoy Nanomedicines. Vecoy makes nanoparticle “virus traps” that mimic human cells and lure viruses (eg., HIV, influenza, hepatitis, herpes) to attack them—once lured into the trap, the nanoparticles inactivate the virus.

Thanks to all the faculty, staff, and participants for making FutureMed 2013 a success—and of course to the program’s masterminds Robin Farmanfarmaian (Executive Producer of FutureMed) and Daniel Kraft (Executive Director of FutureMed). For more, check out FutureMed Magazine for detailed accounts of all the days, or go to the Singularity University press page for other FutureMed coverage. And stay tuned to Singularity Hub. We’ll have a few more FutureMed inspired articles and video interviews for you in the coming weeks.

Image Credit: Deborah Huber Photography

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