Tag Archives: telemedicine

From a painful loss, a way to improve children’s care worldwide

Boston Biotech Watch guest post by Megan Krench*

A year ago, Boston-area medical device entrepreneur Sameer Sabir and his wife Nada Siddiqui received the most devastating news a parent could imagine: their infant daughter, Rehma, had passed away.

Rehma was at home with her nanny on January 14, 2013. In the late afternoon, emergency services responded to the home after a call that Rehma had suffered an apparent seizure. Rehma was rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital. Despite the staff’s enormous efforts to save her, Rehma passed away on January 16, 2013, two days after her first birthday.

Rehma  photo

Rehma passed away just days after her first birthday

As explained in the Boston Globe’s coverage, the nanny was charged with first-degree murder after the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy and ruled the death a homicide.

It is an understatement to say that this has been a difficult year for Sabir and Siddiqui. They are still very much in the midst of dealing with the profound consequences of the loss of their daughter. Yet, despite their grief, they have decided to take action in Rehma’s memory and help support a unique, new platform for medical education.

Not long after Rehma’s passing, Sabir and Siddiqui established The Rehma Fund for Children. Inspired by the care they experienced at Children’s Hospital, they describe the fund’s mission as supporting “charitable causes that help children and parents deal with the emotional trauma and stress of illness and hospitalization through easier access to more compassionate healthcare.”

The fund recently decided to support an innovative and powerful medical education resource that has the potential to make a positive difference for parents and physicians around the world. The program, OPENPediatrics or OPENPeds, is currently in beta testing. It was developed through a collaboration between Boston’s Children Hospital, the World Federation of Pediatric Intensive and Critical Care Societies, and Cambridge-based IBM labs.

OPENPeds was conceived by Dr. Jeff Burns of Boston Children’s Hospital, whose team was responsible for Rehma’s care. Rehma was treated by experts in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) during her time at BCH. In spite of a global need for this kind of expertise, only a select number of PICUs exist. OPENPeds was designed to close this gap by offering an open-access, peer-reviewed, not-for-profit platform to facilitate collective knowledge exchange among pediatric care providers, especially those operating outside of the expertise of PICUs.

To ensure OPENPeds equips practitioners with the tools they need most, the curriculum is based on the results of a survey, completed by over four hundred pediatric critical care providers from fifty-four countries as well as on World Health Organization data on the leading causes of mortality in children.

In addition to this survey-based core curriculum, the Rehma Fund has contributed resources for a Non-Accidental Trauma Module. This module aims to increase quality of care for children who have been the victims of non-accidental trauma. In addition to providing expertise for those patients, the Rehma Fund and OPENPeds also aim to increase awareness of non-accidental trauma in hopes of preventing future injuries. They explained their decision in this video, which they posted last week on what would have been Rehma’s second birthday.

OPENPeds prides itself on high-quality content. The program has been working with physicians all over the world to generate material for the site. The purpose of this is twofold. First, OPENPeds aims to find doctors who are practicing experts in the field for which OPENPeds is developing content. For example, a physician from Boston Children’s Hospital likely would not have extensive experience with pediatric HIV or malaria. The other reason OPENPeds recruits doctors from around the world is to ensure this platform is truly being created for a global community, by a global community. “We recognize that we don’t have all the information, and we don’t want it to be a ‘West to the Rest’ concept,” OPENPeds’ Program Manager, Bridget Koryak, explains.

OPENPeds image of "virtual ventilator"

Interactive medical education: OPENPediatrics allows users to train on a “virtual ventilator” in a patient simulation. (Image courtesy OPENPeds)

The quality of information on OPENPeds is comparable to that found in peer-reviewed journals, but the content is presented in a more dynamic format. OPENPeds has worked closely with experts in Internet-based education technology from both MIT’s OpenCourseWare and the Harvard Graduate School of Education to apply a growing body of knowledge regarding how adults learn. One result is that much of the learning on OPENPeds is interactive. For example, users are challenged to actively apply their knowledge through interactive training modules. Physicians training on an OPENPeds “virtual ventilator” can see how their actions change simulated patients’ responses.

OPENPeds is a unique program, described by partner IBM as the “world’s first cloud-based global education technology platform,” but it will be complementing some existing companies in the digital medical education space. For example, physicians can already subscribe to a service called UpToDate to find comprehensive summaries of cutting-edge medical knowledge in a wide range of specialties, including general pediatrics and adult and pediatric emergency medicine. Two key differences between UpToDate and OPENPeds are format and access: unlike the interactive learning platform used by OPENPeds, UpToDate is primarily literature-based. And unlike OPENPeds’ open access, UpToDate is based on the more traditional paid subscription model.

One physician at a large teaching hospital said that OPENPeds is likely to be widely used, especially by trainees.  Up to Date provides incredibly comprehensive information, this physician said, but it sometimes provides too much information to quickly digest.

Upon learning about OPENPeds, Dr. Rodney Altman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine (Department of Surgery) at Stanford University School of Medicine said, “Some physicians, especially those in rural hospitals, might treat pediatric patients but might not have a lot of experience or comfort in treating the full range of pediatric conditions. Those MDs might well find such a resource useful and might also be interested to see it extended to true, interactive telemedicine.”

Since its launch in September 2012, OPENPeds Beta has already reached over 1,000 users in 70 countries. During early planning, OPENPeds creators imagined this tool as a way to deliver cloud-based medical education to doctors in remote regions. The OPENPeds team was surprised to find strong domestic uptake. It was even being used by physicians in Boston. OPENPeds has turned out to benefit professionals at institutions ranging from rural hospitals in underserved communities to major regional centers. In this way, even before its official launch, OPENPeds is already serving as an equalizer. Regardless of a hospital’s size, location or resources, OPENPeds levels the playing field by giving everyone access to the same high-quality information.

The OPENPeds team is optimistic about the future, but well aware of the obstacles they face. One issue is connectivity. In order for OPENPeds to reach the wide global audience they have in mind, doctors in remote areas must be able to access the information. To get around this issue, the beta release of OPENPeds was a program that doctors could download once, and then update whenever connectivity permitted. However, user feedback has shown that hospital firewalls often prevent doctors from downloading information directly to their computers. Therefore, OPENPeds is switching to a cloud-based platform to circumvent issues with downloads, but the program will still offer a downloadable version for physicians with limited connectivity. Another obstacle is the language barrier. Modules in other languages are on the way, starting with Spanish. OPENPeds’ videos also have rolling transcripts to help physicians who are non-native English speakers.

OPENPeds has ambitious plans for 2014. The spring will see the release of OPENPeds version 1, along with the release of the non-accidental trauma module. OPENPeds plans to expand its content beyond just critical care to include other pediatric specialties, and will soon be launching both pediatric urology and additional pediatric nursing materials. It is also investigating the possibility of adding a feature that will allow users to directly contact an experienced physician in emergency situations.

As a high-quality, Harvard-affiliated program, OPENPeds could potentially spin off into a for-profit startup, but for the moment there are no plans to depart from its original mission to provide free content to pediatric care providers across the world.

In the rapidly expanding landscape of online learning tools for physicians, OPENPeds has several unique attributes so far not duplicated elsewhere: its focus on pediatrics; its lineup of top physicians as speakers and demonstrators; its incorporation of online learning techniques based on up-to-the-minute research about how adults learn; and its non-profit organizational model. By using both interactive techniques as well as highest-quality medical experts, OPENPeds has set itself apart from more conventional approaches to medical education. Given the subsidies and contributions (including those from the Rehma Fund) that make the platform free to users, and its focus on the typically not very lucrative specialty of pediatrics, it currently seems to have no private sector competitors. However, competition may soon be on the way. According to an article that appeared on January 15 on TechCrunch, 2013 saw $1.9 billion in VC funding for early stage healthcare software and app technology, a 39% increase over 2012.

The Rehma Fund will continue to raise funds and consider investing them into expanding the non-accidental trauma module, translating their content into other languages, and possibly creating other modules. Much will depend on the uptake of the initial release and anecdotes showing that it has indeed been an equalizer.

When Koryak was asked about the contribution of the Rehma Fund to OPENPeds, she replied, “It’s been fantastic working with them. When you work at Boston Children’s Hospital, you’re constantly exposed to different stories and many things that kind of touch you. But this one, particularly so.”

*Megan Krench is a PhD candidate in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, where she studies the genetics and biology of neurodegenerative diseases. Follow her on Twitter: @mkrench.

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Networking Your Medication

by Steven Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

By far the coolest company I saw at JP Morgan last week was not even presenting at the conference: Proteus Biomedical and its “Digital Pills”. This company probably also had one of the best weeks of any company there: After I met with them on Monday, Proteus on Tuesday (Jan. 12) announced an agreement with Novartis and on Thursday (Jan. 14), this story entitled “Smart Pills” appeared in the Science & Technology section of The Economist.

Photo of Proteus Biomedical's digital pills - white pill with tiny chip embedded on top

Digital pills tell all


“Digital Pills” carry standard doses of medicine but they include embedded sensor chips – fully digestible! – that transmit to a receiver placed just outside the body. This allows a “Digital Pill” to communicate via the internet using the patient’s cellphone that the pill has been taken, at what hour, at what dosage and so on. In this YouTube video, Proteus founder-CEO Andrew Thompson drew an analogy between “digitized medicine” and the modern automobile, festooned with embedded sensors and chips. These devices have made cars more reliable – “it means that your car rarely breaks down and if it’s going to break down, you would know about it in advance and be able to go see a mechanic.”

The immediate promise of “Digital Pills” is the ability they could confer to pharmaceutical companies to monitor patient compliance with medical regimens both during clinical trials and also after they are on the market. This might turn failed trials into successful ones e.g. if patients have been forgetful or medicines are less than good-tasting. The data from those patients could simply be dropped from the analysis and drug efficacy could be determined just on those who took the pills – a drug developer’s dream! And it might create a feedback loop between patient, physician and payer that alerts all of them when compliance is the cause of treatment failure rather than a lack of efficacy. Proteus also has a vision of “Digital Pills” taken by infirm or forgetful seniors alerting caregivers about their loved ones’ medication status.

In contrast to the gold-plated technologies developed by many a medical device startup that increase the cost of care, “Digital Pills” can ultimately be very inexpensive. Thompson told the Wall Street Journal in August, 2009, that in high-volume production, the digestible digital transmitter will add less than a penny to the cost of a pill. Venture capital investors consulted by Boston Biotech Watch were a bit skeptical about whether this is a realistic estimate. If true, it could make “Digital Pills” one high-tech invention that could truly be aligned with health care reformers’ goals of smarter, more cost-effective healthcare.

Proteus’ dynamic founder Thompson and his co-founder and company CTO Mark Zdeblick set out in 2001 toward a mind-bending goal: to implant a networked computer into a patient in order to improve medical treatment. In a burst of original thinking, Thompson realized that future medical products – even those as small as pills – would have their usefulness magnified if they were network-enabled. This required several technical breakthroughs. The company had to make sure that the “hardware” was also “wetware” e.g. that its sensor-transmitter chips would not be destroyed by stomach acid; devise a scheme to deliver short-range signals from inside the body to outside; and invent a “smart Band-Aid” that could relay these signals to a nearby handheld device (“medical BlackBerry”), which in turn could relay them to a server.

The company had to come up with a chip built from food or at least materials that already qualified as GRAS [Generally Regarded As Safe]. The proprietary chips they invented, once activated by body fluids, can broadcast a pill-specific signal that says something like “I’m Lipitor, I was synthesized on Thursday, I contain so many milligrams of active material.” Then Proteus came up with sensor-receivers embedded in the “smart Band-Aids” to read these signals (e.g. via Bluetooth) and then transmit them on.

According to the company web site, “Digital Pills” are in clinical trials in one indication area, heart failure. Furthermore, trials have begun of medical devices incorporating embedded technology from Proteus. These trials also are in the area of heart failure.

Part of the magic of Proteus’ story lies in the backgrounds of its founders. CEO Thompson is a venture capitalist with Spring Ridge Ventures who successfully built and sold publicly traded medical device company FemRx to J & J in the 1990s. CTO Zdeblick spent part of his career in optoelectronics (with K2 Optronics) and part of it in creating “electro-fluidic integrated circuits” (with Redwood Microsystems.) He did PhD work in the lab of micro-mechanical systems pioneer Cal Quate at Stanford, where he invented a key part of the atom-manipulating atomic force microscope.

Top-tier VC and private equity investors (see Table 1 for a list) have jumped on Proteus to the tune of a reported $100 million ($32 million in a 2008 Series D financing alone), providing a big cushion of capital to help push the technology to market.

Investor Location
Adams Street Partners Menlo Park, CA
Asset Management Palo Alto, CA
Carlyle Group San Francisco, CA
Essex Woodlands Palo Alto, CA
Fletcher Spaght Boston, MA
Kaiser Permanente Ventures Oakland, CA
Spring Ridge Ventures Menlo Park, CA

Table 1: VC and PE investors in Proteus (data courtesy Proteus web site)

The Novartis deal is significant not just because, as The Economist points out, Novartis is the largest pharmaceutical company to form a partnership with Proteus, but also because it portends great future value in the company’s technology. To wit: for the $24 million in announced deal value, Novartis appears from the press release to receive worldwide commercial exclusivity to only one indication area, namely transplantation medicine, along with “certain option rights in cardiovascular and oncology product applications, as well as rights to use Proteus technologies in its clinical development of pharmaceutical products.” This last clause might be troublesome to Proteus in the event that it imposes limitations on the company’s ability to move forward simultaneously with clinical trials in many indication areas; on the other hand, Novartis is presumably paying for applied R&D that Proteus can later apply in collaborations in other therapeutic areas.

Other “networked medicine” companies mentioned by The Economist (Boston-based privately held MicroCHIPS to the Netherlands-based multinational Philips are developing implantable devices for precise drug delivery and monitoring. There are yet others with transmitting ingestibles, such as Given Imaging, with its FDA-approved, wireless PillCam that views the GI tract from inside; and Remon Medical, acquired by Boston Scientific in 2007, which has worked on heart monitors for many years.

But Proteus seems poised to be first-to-market with a truly transformative technology of low-added-cost, digitally enabled medications: Cool pills filled with promise.

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Disclosure: Proteus is not a client of CBT Advisors.

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