January 2007

WORLD NEWS

Surgery in the US, watched in Pakistan

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan has recently made successful inroads in the field of e-Health. It has connected universities on the Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN) with important universities of 14 countries, for an interactive video conferencing on health. This has enabled medical students and faculty members in Pakistan to witness a live arthroscopic shoulder surgery being conducted in the US, and also exchange comments and discussion prior to the surgery with a cross-section of the academic fraternity from the Columbia University, McCormick Centre Chicago, Peking University, GDLN World Bank, Washington DC, Shanghai Jiaotong University, IIT New Delhi, Hong Kong University and University of Athens.

On 5 December 2006, the ‘Global Forum on Road Trauma’ became the first ever health event to be telecasted via video conferencing in Pakistan. It included live interactions with academicians and professionals from top universities and research institutions, which included University of Toronto, World Bank, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, University of Vienna Medical School, Peking University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, India Institute of Technology, New Delhi, and McCormick Centre, Chicago.

Here it deserves a mention that by participating in this mega global conference on health, Pakistan formally joined a high-speed network named Internet2, that has links with over 200 top-of-the-line research institutions of the US. The network can now help many researchers to participate in collaborative experiments from thousands of miles apart, and also have access to high quality research material. Of course, health researchers in Pakistan should avail of this opportunity, which can give a fillip to the e-Health scenario of our not so friendly neighbour. We wish them best of luck on the road to e-Health.

Presently Higher Education Commission’s video conferencing project has connected with nine universities in Pakistan through IP-based video conferencing system. This enables students of those universities to exchange ideas and views and gain knowledge and capabilities across vast distances.

A nose for cancer

Dr. Hossam Haick, a 31-year-old Israeli researcher with the Israel Institute of Technology, has received a whooping grant of 1.73 million euro by the EU under its Marie Curie Excellence programme, for the development of an electronic nose, which can sniff and detect the growth of cancer at its earliest possible stages. This grant can be seen as EU’s sustained endeavours to support and encourage young scientists.

If Dr. Haick’s research is successful, medical science will get a potent weapon to check any cancerous growth and eliminate this dangerous disease at its inception. Dr. Haick aims to create an instrument based on nanometer-sized sensors, that would not only be able to diagnose cancers at a very early stage, but would also ascertain as to what stage the disease is.

All odours comprise of molecules, and each of these molecules has a corresponding receptor in the human nose. When a specific receptor receives an odour molecule, it sends a signal to the brain and the brain identifies the specific odour of that particular molecule. The theory behind the electronic noses is based on this basic physiological model, only in electronic noses, sensors are substituted for the receptors. And instead of the brain, the sensors will transmit the signal to a program for processing.

A healthy charity

Christmas eve can be the ideal time for some development work cloaked in charity, and the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam (AusCham) has wisely availed of this opportunity. The chamber, in association with the Australia and New Zealand Group (ANZ), organized a Christmas-time charity gala dinner for raising funds for an Internet health project at the National Hospital of Paediatrics in Ha Noi, Vietnam. The National Hospital of Paediatrics is an important centre for paediatric care in Vietnam. The charity dinner got support from heavyweight sponsors like Sofitel Plaza Ha Noi, Phillips Fox, Duografikmedia, Midway Metals, Cathay Pacific and Ha Noi Zakka.

The proceeds from the night were donated to the Hoc Mai Foundation, which has introduced a web-based communications link for doctors at the National Hospital of Paediatrics, in Ha Noi. Here it deserves a mention that the Hoc Mai Foundation, under the University of Sydney, runs an e-Health linkage project, which endeavours to have online case referrals between Vietnamese doctors at the National Hospital of Paediatrics in Ha Noi and medical practioners with the Royal North Shore Hospital and Children’s Hospital in Sydney, and the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. These links will help the Vietnamese doctors at the National Hospital of Paediatrics to able to refer cases on to hospitals in Australia for second opinions or expert advice, and as such we can say that the proceeds from this charity will go a long way in fostering to develop a strong e-Health link between these two countries.

An eye for e-Health

Drishtee, which is engaged in creating and implementing a sustainable and scalable platform of entrepreneurship for enabling the development of rural economy and society in India with the use of ICT, has already made a name for itself in the field of e-governance. And in Dec 2006, it kick-started an e-Health initiative. Drishtee, along with its partners and its network of ICT kiosks, is proposing to take a major lead in taking quality health services to the rural populace. It proposes to involve leading players in the health care domain and synergize their competency and bind it with the strength and credibility of ICT entrepreneur to reach a broad based section of the community.

Though the present project is in the pilot stage, its potential reflects a bright future for rural e-Health in India. Under this project, Drishtee will set up kiosk cooperatives in villages, which will facilitate people in those villages to communicate with their health centers. These health centers in turn will be connected to hospitals via Internet. Doctors in hospitals will send their reports and prescriptions online. Similarly, the kiosk centers will order medicines online as per the prescriptions.

Besides being an important conduit for medication, the health centers will also store important medical statistics, such as reports of blood pressure, pulse rates, etc. of regular patients. For this project, Drishtee has tied up with Bangalore-based Nerosynaptics, a local NGO named Janani, and a pharma company.

Here it deserves a mention that the World Economic Forum has selected 47 companies across the globe as ‘Technology Pioneers for 2007’, which also includes two Indian firms. One of them is Drishtee, and the other is Strand Lifesciences. The latter’s domain is into bio-informatics, and it applies algorithms and other computer-based technologies to facilitate innovation, discovery and development of new drugs. It seems that e-Health is the new buzzword in India’s technology.

The heart of intelligent machines

Telemedicine can now help you get cured of sleep apnea; a type of breathing disorder � while you are sleeping. If it sounds like fiction, then just remember the age-old saying. Yes for Christian Weigand, a computer scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen, Germany, and his scientist colleagues, this is a scientific reality that they have achieved.

They have developed an innovative device which can be put in a box and strapped around the chest of the patient before he or she slips into slumber. With the aid of sensors, the said device can record vital data about the patient’s breathing rate, pulse, heartbeat, oxygen level in the blood, and sleeping position. Now thanks to bluetooth technology, these data are now transmitted via short-range radio to a base station (which incidentally is in the patient’s home), where the data is analysed and being send to the physician treating the patient.

Now its medical applications are no doubt, enormous. Besides breathing disorders, this futuristic technology can also aid the heart patients through remote monitoring, without making them bother to visit a hospital. Moreover, now the latest cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators are ‘intelligent’ enough to check themselves and send an email to the physician treating the patient, if they are not functioning properly, which facilitates their speedy ‘cure’ or replacement, thus saving lots of botheration for the patient. However, they can not only check themselves, but can also record changes in the heartbeat and heart rate of their ‘master’-the patient!

Take the case of Health Manager, a device developed by the Stuttgart-based company Biocomfort. Presently it can measure weight, body fat, blood pressure, and blood sugar and its ability to check heart rhythm is also on the anvil. That’s not all. The machine can transmit these medical data by radio to a personal computer or personal digital assistant, whose software makes a health assessment and gives warnings and health tips, as the case may be, through online. And what’s more, the machine is not at all unaffordable by international standards. Time to have a nice sleep …

A fashion statement

Eat healthy to stay healthy is an old notion. While that may still ring true, there is every likelihood that with the progress of the twenty-first century, the proposed and supposedly nutty dictum of “healthy clothing for a healthy life” can be taken with all seriousness. The European Commission has supported the development of intelligent biomedical clothes throughout its Fifth and Sixth Framework Programmes, and the Seventh Framework Programme provides for greater funding for research in this field, which makes intelligent fabrics an idea full of promise; all ready to make an impact in the world of health and fashion. Already some formative developments in this area by some of the FP6 projects are amply showing the huge potential. The garments developed in the WEALTHY and MYHEART projects deserve special mentions in this context.

Now what is the concept behind intelligent fabrics? They are smart fabrics with embedded sensors to monitor various aspects of human physiology. A patient wearing these clothes can be monitored over extended periods of time, which can greatly reduce the need for visits to doctor’s clinic and hospital. The data collected from these wearable sensors can be transmitted to the telemedicine centers via communication networks(electronically, of course), and when the data reflects a need for concern, electronic systems show alarm or warning signs. Thus without the botheration of making an appointment and visiting a doctor after a long wait, the patient can stay connected with his doctor. These innovative form of clothing can not only intimate the doctors immediately about any emergency condition, but can also help in prevention and early detection of many diseases. This innovation can be a great boon for the chronically ill patients who need constant monitoring, and for the elderly vulnerable people, who find it difficult to access traditional care due to their infirm conditions.

The muscle ofe-Health

Leading European researchers and doctors have come together in a newly launched ‘network of excellence’, to find cure for rare neuromuscular diseases. This 10 million euro worth network is a first of its kind, and will provide the ideal marriage between ICT and medicine for neuromuscular research and treatment. It has been funded by the EU. More than two lakh people in Europe suffer from neuromuscular diseases, which may lead to paralysis or even death. Muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy are only two of their fatal forms. The network named TREAT-NMD (Translational research in Europe – Assessment and Treatment of Neuromuscular Diseases) comprises 21 partner organizations from 11 countries, and besides doctors and researchers, it brings together charities and public organizations working in neuromuscular diseases.

The network is not only concerned with exchange of ideas, research and invention of new drugs for neuromuscular diseases, but also with the logistics aspect. To ensure optimal efficiency in the progress of a drug from a laboratory to a medical shop, the network is establishing close linkages with the pharmaceutical companies. The network will develop clinical trials coordination center in Germany, which besides imparting advice on conducting trials of the highest standards, will offer training to participants in the network.

The Power of MammoGrid

In modern times, breast cancer has become the most common chimera among the women, across the globe. According to statistics, it results in the death of one in 28 women in the EU and the US. Thus the importance behind its early and accurate detection just cannot be overestimated. Conventional Mammography can be the answer, though the probability of misdiagnosis involved in such a technique is quite high, largely due to the differences in tissue density among the patients, but also due to the differences in equipments and procedures. Here ICT can provide an effective solution as far as early detection and accuracy of diagnosis of breast cancer are concerned.

The European Information Society Technology (IST) project MammoGrid, which ended in August 2005, has explored the power of the grid to improve diagnosis. The software developed is already helping the hospitals, doctors, clinicians, radiologists and researchers.

The MammoGrid approach applies grid technologies for medical diagnosis and enables users to compare new mammograms with existing ones in the grid database. Already 30,000 images of over 3000 patients are stored in the exhaustive, geographically distributed, grid-based database. Through this novel approach, the users can access mammograms from a variety of sources, as well as computer-aided detection algorithms; to detect tiny specks of calcium in the breast that could indicate cancer, and can also monitor breast density. Greater the tissue density in the breast, greater is the vulnerability of getting breast cancer.

The current version of the software also enables users to securely share the resources and patient data, without risking the anonymity of the patient. However, the story doesn’t end here. A new consortium independent of IST funding has been set up to further develop the prototype and make it more in tune with the market needs. The new project team has set up four separate sites, to simulate the needs of four different hospitals and test the latest project developments.

The results from these tests have been uated by a panel of two IT experts and five clinicians from the hospitals in Spain’s Extremadura region. A pre-commercial release of the software (Mammogrid+ version 1.0) is scheduled in June 2007. Five hospitals are involved in this project, and the future plans include broadening the existing database across Europe.

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