Many thanks to Mrs. Jones’ science students from Forsyth School in St. Louis, who provided creative and inspiring ideas about the future of health care.
The palm-sized block of ABS plastic that Patricia Widder turns over in her hands appears rough and elemental, not the first image one may have when considering 3D printing. Yet examples of proteins, heart valves, microscope stands, and replacement parts for the 3D printers themselves appear in similar fashion, spread across the open lab space like tinker toys set down for a moment by a child.
In fact, many of the examples Widder, a biomedical engineering lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, brings forth from various tables actually come from the minds of middle school students. In her quantitative physiology teaching lab, she describes the fish feeder a summer camp student created using a 3D printer and raspberry pi, which uses a motor and basic engineering skills to effectively keep his fish satiated. A proponent of ideas, Widder points to several of the designs that are shared on internet spaces like Thingiverse, one of many websites making programming and design more accessible to the masses. “We provide the raw materials students can use to try ideas,” Widder states, referring to both young and old as she gestures to the upper-level biomedical engineering students working in the space. The entire work area, with its easy access to designs that are the beginnings of a wide variety of plans, along with her emphasis on student initiative both echo the large movements present in the biotechnology and health care industry.
Just as 3D printing is now easily accessed by students across the spectrum, health care and the innovation is not limited to the experienced or established. Instead, like the small-scale 3D printing project examples, innovation is becoming highly individualized as people are creating small-scale solutions that eventually play out for a wider application. Increasingly, younger students learn about rapidly developing technologies and can synthesize fantastic ideas of their own, as demonstrated by the insights of sixth graders at Forsyth School.
The class fixated on certain key themes, which are all reflected strongly in the real world: the do-it-yourself trend, better diagnostics, and new body parts.
The first of the big ideas on which this group focuses is access to immediate,personal knowledge about the body. Young students like Ben at Forsyth School write about vaccines with “ a small camera … except instead of the video feed going only to the doctors and nurses, the doctors and nurses will give the parents an app on their apple or android device that allows you to log in and see with the microscopic lens where in the process of rebuilding the bone your bone is at.”
Today’s imaging technology, wearable devices, and apps all provide anyone with a mobile device access to information about the human body. This trend is producing a slew of mobile apps that provide personal access to how the body is communicating below the surface of what we may normally detect. Mobile health, often abbreviated mHealth, encompasses the wide variety of apps and mobile devices that health practitioners and consumers are incorporating to improve overall health. Some measure heart rate, track fitness, and even anxiety. Roughly fifty percent of consumers surveyed believe that mHealth will drastically change how to detect disease, reduce costs of health care, and facilitate communication with providers. Moreover, the CDC tracked about 13,000 home health and hospice agencies in 2013 and found that forty-six percent incorporated either electronic health records, mobile technology, or both in their practices. Along the same line, the Pew Research Center reported in 2012 that nineteen percent of smartphone owners have downloaded a health app on their phone, such as fitness and weight trackers.
Simply put, we are powered by technology. Our attachment to our phones may prove to be a dependable source for data collection that will make health care smarter or more accessible from the palm of one’s hand.
Moreover, many students of Mrs. Jones’ science class fixate on body scanners, such as those imagined by Will: “What if we could detect diseases before they took their toll on the minds and bodies of so many people? We would inject man-made microorganisms into everyone when they were born, and then, throughout their life, any broken bones, viruses, bacteria, fungi, or faults in the nervous system of these people would be instantly relayed and checked by a super computer connected to all these special micro-cells.” His imaginings combine several ideas in place already or those that are being developed by researchers. For example, blood tests can determine the chemistry of the body, and further research elucidates what the body can tell physicians.
Monica Shokeen, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, is taking advantage of the unique hybrid technology of PET-MR scanners to help clinicians see a very simple picture of the human body. She collaborates closely with clinicians to bring solutions from the “benchsite to the bedside.” Specifically, Dr. Shokeen is working on multiple myeloma, which is a cancer that involves the complex microenvironment of the bone marrow, by pioneering targeted molecular imaging. Through the use of nanoparticles, her lab is working on reducing toxicity in the body by packaging drugs that function both as a tracer and therapy for the patient.
Lastly, the sixth-graders love the idea of printing organs and human body parts. Perhaps this fixation harkens back to the common idea of superpowers. The ability to regain movement through prosthetics is both a familiar idea yet fantastic in scope. The hopes of printing viable human organs like kidneys have been widely disseminated through the internet and open forums such as TED. However, looking at the simple prints in the 3D printing lab, it becomes obvious that the integration between ideas such as manufacturing organs still has many years of development before it becomes as prevalent as printing a spare plastic part.
These students dream big, perhaps even bigger than the resources available at the moment. However, classrooms and teachers like Widder are encouraging the development of ideas at all levels, starting with “whatever speaks to them.” So whether it be 3D printing, scanners, mobile apps, shots or sprays, cures for pain, eliminating the “fishy taste” of medicine, robots or bionic pumps for diabetes, children and students are finding plenty to speak about. With the conglomeration of minds present at all levels, barriers to innovation within health care are beginning to diminish.
And that is something to imagine.