How Wearable Technology Could Lead to a Better Mesothelioma Treatment

Treatment // November 1, 2016

Wearable technology is all the rage these days, from fitness devices like FitBit, to apps that will use the GPS on your phone to track your running route, to more novelty items like Snapchat’s new “connected glasses.” Sensors and RFID chips and even full-on computers are now being inserted into everything from clothing and shoes and wristbands to pacemakers, insulin monitors, and other types of implantable medical devices.

Now, the University of Southern California (USC) is showing people how using different types of wearable technology could improve cancer treatment – something that could significantly impact the way we detect, treat, and monitor mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. At the recent South by South Lawn event – a “festival of ideas, art, and action” held at the White House on October 3 – USC showed how doctors could obtain real-time data from patients who use wearable technology, as well as record their own experiences, to make better decisions about treatments.

Introducing ATOM-HP

Now, USC is moving forward with a two-year project called Analytical Technologies to Objectively Measure Human Performance – or more simply, ATOM-HP. As participant in the Cancer Moonshot Initiative currently being headed by Vice President Joe Biden, ATOM-HP will bring together scientists from across different disciplines, including computer science, mathematics, medicine, physics, and physiology, all with the goal of identifying and developing ways to use sensory data, as measured by wearable devices, to improve the lives and enhance the treatment of cancer patients.

One of the reasons why collecting this sort of data from wearable technology is that in many cases cancer patients may not be able to fully relay the effects of cancer and cancer treatments on their own bodies. In some cases, cancer patients may simply forget events or episodes in which they felt poorly in reaction to a chemotherapy treatment, or they may not remember the level of intensity of their pain, nausea, or other symptom or side effect. Wearable technology can help in these cases by making objective observations about the patient’s behavior, physiological condition, and other factors that patients might not even consider.

For example, through wearable technology, doctors might be able to see how many days a patient remained in bed, versus getting up and being more active, which could allow the doctor to change the course of treatment. Likewise, doctors could monitor physiological factors such as pulse and blood pressure and identify patterns over days to see if things like when a patient takes a certain pill affects their physical performance.

Ultimately, the goal with ATOM-HP is to develop new ways for doctors to obtain a more complete medical picture of a cancer patient’s treatment, recovery, and ongoing progress. The reality is that currently, most cancer patients only see their doctors for a few minutes out of any given month, even in the midst of their most intensive cancer treatments. Having data from wearable technology could help doctors assess the patient’s condition even better, by giving them a much fuller picture.

“The more than 30,000 minutes between [three-week] visits are a missed opportunity,” said Dr. Peter Kuhn, the dean of USC’s biological sciences. “Technology can be leveraged to fill this gap and provide a comprehensive picture. The collected data can lead to better treatment decisions, better survival rates, and better understanding between physician and patient.”

ATOM-HP and Mesothelioma

It is hard to say exactly how this type of research will affect a particular type of cancer. However, given the generally poor prognosis of mesothelioma, anything that can improve treatment is welcome. And as more data becomes available to researchers, and engineers and data scientists figure out better ways to manipulate and draw conclusions from it, wearable technology could move from simply collecting information to actually providing treatment. This is already happening in other areas of medicine, such as with experimental implantable devices that provide diabetes patients with insulin based on objective measurement of blood sugar levels, rather relying on the individual to inject themselves.

More broadly speaking, it is encouraging to see projects like this come out of the work of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. More ideas on how we can improve the patient’s recovery and experience with treatment are needed, and projects like ATOM-HP at USC are certainly needed if we are ever going to make progress in fighting deadly cancers like mesothelioma.