11 Health Companies make the World Economic Group Tech Pioneer List

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Nearly one-third of the 36 emerging technology pioneers chosen by the World Economic Forum this year have implications for the life sciences and health IT space. They represent robotics, noninvasive prenatal testing, using edible identifiers to guard against counterfeit drugs and an anti-smoking vaccine.

Since 2000, the World Economic Forum has identified companies based on their potential to make a global impact with the groundbreaking technology they’ve developed. Here are 11 of the companies.

Metabolic enzymes: Agios Pharmaceuticals has determined that some cancer cells need to feed an enzyme addiction. So if you can figure out a way to block the enzyme you can kill the cancer’s nutrient supply and avoid affecting the other cells. It sees opportunity for up to 100 metabolic enzymes on which various cancers depend for nutrients but is developing treatments for eight. It’s also looking at genetic diseases that prevent the body from being able to produce a specific enzyme from birth — “inborn errors of metabolism.” Most show up in early childhood, and have with no treatment. They can be fatal or severely compromise quality of life.

Harnessing nanotechnology: BIND Therapeutics has developed a drug delivery system using nanoparticles to transport therapeutics to fight cancer without weakening the rest of the body with the toxic treatments. Its lead product is a chemotherapy in Phase 2 clinical trials. In addition to cancer the company is developing drug delivery systems for inflammation and cardiovascular conditions.

A nonprofit medical device developer: D-Rev: Design Revolution’s client base includes people in developing countries. The company develops medical devices such as prosthetic knees made with injection molded plastic at one-tenth of the cost of, say, a titanium equivalent. Although it does not donate its products it sells them for a few dollars apiece. It uses grants for research and development. It’s also developing a mass-produced version of the plastic knee along with other products. Given the current debate over medical costs, the company could make an interesting contribution on potential ways to reduce costs without jeopardizing patient safety.

Gene therapy — a lesson from HIV: bluebird Bio has developed an innovative approach to gene therapy to treat genetic disorders such as childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare and often fatal neurological disorder affecting young boys; and beta-thalassemia major and severe sickle cell disease. Its treatment approach is inspired by HIV, a lentivirus which can deposit viral RNA into the DNA of the host cell. Its technology involves transferring functional genes into the patient’s stem cells, which can transform into several different types of cells. It’s also collaborating with Celgene and Baylor University to modify patient’s T cells — a type of white blood cell — to combat cancer.

Noninvasive prenatal testing: Natera appears to have surmounted the problem of how to perform prenatal tests to identify chromosomal abnormalities accurately and reduce the risk posed to the mother and their unborn child. Its Panorama blood test analyses the mother’s blood, which contains fragments of free-floating foetal DNA. Its accuracy claims to be comparable to amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling. It uses data from the Human Genome Project to calculate the statistical probability that the sample represents a chromosomal disorder. The company also offers counseling to help clinicians and parents interpret the test results.

Personalized cancer treatment: Foundation Medicine launched a diagnostic test in June last year that can assess the best course of treatment across 236 different cancer genes. Some of these treatments are still being developed in clinical trials. It’s working with 18 pharmaceutical companies which have further therapies in the pipeline. Although Foundation has focused on solid tumors, a diagnostic test to assess treatment options for blood-based cancers is under development and expected to reach the market next year.

Crowdsourced answers to big data questions: If you or your company have big data questions, Kaggle has a way of generating big data answers through a global pool of 100,000 data experts. According to a description of the company, businesses can either offer cash prizes to members of Kaggle’s community who can improve on their existing formulas to extract more value from their data sets. A couple of Big Pharma companies — Merck and Boehringer Ingelheim — have tapped their resources to get answers to predictive analytics questions, such as gauging demand for particular drugs across a wide geographic base. Participation can also be restricted when data is sensitive.

Restoring vision: Second Sight Medical Products has developed a way to help partially restore vision to some patients with retinal degeneration. The procedure involves inserting its implant into the retina. The patient wears glasses that contain a camera. A small computer, on a belt, processes signals from the camera, and an antenna on the side of the glasses transmits them wirelessly to the implant. The implant sends electrical impulses to the brain, causing the patient to perceive patterns of light. Recipients have been able to follow sidewalks and identify doorways and read large print text. It is being developed further with the hope of improving the range of abilities restored to users and creating a similar solution for macular degeneration.

A vaccine for nicotine addiction: A biotechnology company Selecta Biosciences is using synthetic nanoparticles to improve the immune system’s response. A vaccine against nicotine addiction is the company’s lead product and is in the midst of clinical trials. The idea is that by inducing antibodies to trap nicotine before it can trigger addiction, it can eliminate cravings. It’s also in the early stages of other applications including malaria and cancer. But it sees scope for additional areas such as allergies and autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.

Tactile robots: As part of the quest to make better prosthetics, SynTouch has developed robotic fingers that deliver sensory feedback from their fingertips, similar to humans, in three areas — force, vibration and temperature. The company also sees scope for surgical applications as well as other areas.

Spotting counterfeits: Counterfeit drugs are a growing concern in the healthcare industry. Although there are parts of the U.S. where this has been a problem, such as Florida, it is an ongoing issue for developing countries. Pharmaceutical companies that want to protect their brand and the patient population that uses their medication are working with businesses like TrueTag Technologies to make it easier to separate legitimate and fake versions of their products. The identifiers, which can be scanned with a handheld device, are made of silica and embedded in pills. The substance has been approved by the FDA and is safe to eat. Nanotechnology is used to embed a unique code, similar to a bar code, into a tag that is smaller than the width of a human hair. These codes are linked to a database that adds a time-related dimension of encryption, making the tags practically impossible to counterfeit, according to a description of the technology.

By Stephanie Baum

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