According to the World Health Organization, so-called Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) affect more than one billion people and cost developing economies billions of dollars every year.

Populations living in poverty, without adequate sanitation and in close contact with infectious vectors such as livestock are most affected by these communicable illnesses, which prevail in tropical conditions. To complicate matters, diseases like measles and tuberculosis, which were nearly eradicated a century ago, are again on the rise. And more common, eminently treatable infectious diseases – norovirus and flu, for example – are responsible for thousands of preventable deaths each year.

Fortunately, new medical technology has vast potential to control infection, contain outbreak, even deliver life-saving supplies to remote regions affected by these diseases. From antimicrobial paint to powdered vaccines to drone-delivered organs, these innovations are fast becoming a clinical reality.

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In the short-term, such tools can improve survival rate for patients affected by a host of maladies; long-term, they may help us understand pathogen epidemiology, essential to the development of global disease control programs.

Ouchless insulin

Certain medicines can only be delivered by injection. The constant pinprick of needles is painful for patients and cumbersome for healthcare providers, while a shortage of sterile hypodermic needles in some areas can lead to infection. Now, researchers from MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Harvard’s Brigham and Women's Hospital have engineered a coating that they claim can safely carry insulin beyond the obstacles of the digestive system and into the bloodstream – a kind of edible Swiss Army knife that can deliver life-saving medicine without the pain of needle injection. 

Once swallowed, the pill issues a spring-activated dart of insulin directly into the wall of the stomach. Patients with type 1 diabetes – the version of the disease in which the immune system attacks pancreatic cells that produce blood sugar-regulating insulin – might soon be able to manage their condition with the help of this pea-sized device.

The researchers reported their findings in the journal Science, explaining that they were “inspired by the leopard tortoise’s ability to passively reorient”: the pill’s applicator knows how to position itself so that its microscopic needle is trained directly toward stomach tissue, without perforating any gastric organs along the way.

The antimicrobial paint that can kill ‘superbugs’

About 10% of hospital patients contract a new illness during their stay – often after coming into contact with germ-laden equipment and surfaces. This results in about 100,000 deaths annually in the US alone; globally, 700,000 people die each year as a result of drug-resistant infections, including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. The World Health Organization recently described antibiotic resistance as a “global health emergency”.

One company, BioCote, produces antimicrobial paint for purchase commercially, offering a promising mechanism for fighting so-called ‘superbugs’

In response, the US Food and Drug Administration and several leading paint companies have teamed up to develop a variety of antimicrobial coatings that can be applied to medical equipment and supplies. These additives are first introduced into a paint, ink or lacquer during the manufacturing process; the paint is then applied to a surface, which, once dried, becomes resistant to microbes, mould, and fungi. One company, BioCote, produces antimicrobial paint for purchase commercially, offering a promising mechanism for fighting so-called “superbugs”: the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect hospital surfaces and harm patients who are already immunocompromised.

Ironically, the same chemicals in antibacterial products – gels, antiseptics and hand sanitisers – used to scour hospitals and clean equipment are known to actually promote these antibacterial strains, killing off good and bad bacteria alike. Since their advent in the early 20th Century, antibiotics have saved countless lives, eradicating diseases caused by harmful bacteria; but, just as overuse of the drugs has weakened their efficacy, antimicrobial paint isn’t a fail-safe measure.

It’s safe to say that, as long as they don’t rely exclusively on one method, hospitals can now add antibacterial paint to their disease-fighting toolbox.

Crypto-anchors may put an end to counterfeit pharmaceuticals

Fraud costs the global economy more than £3tn a year. From corporate corruption to fake electronics to identity theft, double-dealing is pervasive in almost every industry, and that includes healthcare: in some countries, nearly 70% of certain drugs are counterfeit. 

Earlier in February, the World Health Organization reported that fake leukemia medicine, packaged for the UK market to look like the genuine drug Iclusig, was circulating in Europe and the Americas. And physicians have found traces of ecstasy and Viagra ingredients in pills posing as antimalarial medicine

It turns out that ensuring the authenticity of medicine is nearly as difficult as monitoring bank accounts or consumer electronics, for a few reasons. Complex supply chains, comprised of dozens of suppliers in multiple countries, make it difficult to prevent bad actors from tampering with drugs. The market for legal medicine has surpassed that of illegal narcotics, a fact not lost on drug dealers; and when a patient doesn’t blossom back to health after taking a (counterfeit) drug, doctors generally blame the illness, and not the pill.

A drop of water would visibly activate the code, assuring consumers the pill is both authentic and safe to consume

That may all soon change, thanks to a team of IBM researchers who are developing crypto-anchors: tamper-proof digital fingerprints that can be embedded into products and linked to a blockchain to prove their authenticity (the blockchain is a growing list of digital records called blocks, which are linked through encrypted code).

Smaller than a grain of sand, these crypto-anchors can take many forms: tiny edible computers or optical codes that can be put on pills to separate them from fake meds, in much the same way that diamonds are measured and marked to distinguish them from imitation stones.

Researchers offered the example of embedding a crypto-anchor in an edible shade of magnetic ink, which could then be used to dye a malaria pill. A drop of water would visibly activate the code, assuring consumers the pill is both authentic and safe to consume.

Since their identifying codes cannot be duplicated or copied, crypto-anchors are highly secure, offering patients, doctors and healthcare providers added security in an increasingly fraudulent pharmaceutical landscape.

BRCK: free public Wifi

We take internet connectivity for granted, but many lack reliable access to a network connection. Breakdowns in digital communication during a health crisis can have devastating consequences: missed dosages, inaccurate records, poor decision-making, medical errors, and incomplete information regarding disease outbreaks.

In Africa, a continent whose 1.1 billion inhabitants rely mostly on mobile internet, connectivity is notoriously bad; the problem is compounded by the fact that users are often trying to access content that sits on a remote server somewhere in the United States or Europe.

Enter Moja, a free public Wifi device created by the BRCK team designed to be used in areas with limited internet access. More than just a hardware router, this content delivery network (CDN) effectively replaces spotty – and expensive –cellular data, allowing users to browse the internet and social media at no additional cost, since anyone within range of Moja’s signal can connect to the internet for free.

Moja’s network of servers hosts content for Facebook, Netflix and Youtube, but it’s easy to see how this improved connection might have tremendous impact for disease management: remote users will be able to message one another and share information in real time, thereby streamlining communication between doctors, patients, hospitals and healthcare volunteers.

Plus, BRCK’s hardware is designed to stand up to the challenges of weather and environment: Moja runs through sturdy, waterproof aluminium routers with multiple power ports, ensuring that applications run smoothly even when conditions are tough.

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