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Nanotechnology and behavioral variables in healthcare

Big data and machine learning platforms (and nanotechnology in the future) are in a unique position to analyze one of the most challenging aspects of medical research: behavioral variables that are not reported accurately by common assessment methods. While EMRs (electronic medical records) prompt healthcare providers to collect a great deal of subjective information that impacts healthcare, such as compliance with medication regimes or alcohol intake, the validity of the information collected is questionable.

The subjective nature of the reasons people conceal or alter information given to a health care provider are as complicated at the whole of the human population. People feel social pressures to conform and please a questioner. They don’t want to admit to money problems that impact health care. They do not accurately see their own behavior. Cultural norms regarding personal information vary widely, as does disclosure by age and gender and social class. But new methods of gathering and quantifying data across populations has the potential to give greater insights into human behavior that can change the results of medical research.

Other Sources of Data

Relying solely on patient reports of behavior is a method of gathering data that is extremely limited and may significantly impact the results of healthcare research. But gathering self reports, along with subjective research reports, pharmacy records, laboratory test results, social media, buying behavior, financial records, employment records, and other sources of data, and then analyzing across populations, can give a more accurate picture of what people are actually doing. By having a more accurate picture of human behavioral variables, healthcare research can more accurately assess the impact of human behavior on health care outcomes, and propose treatment modalities that are fine-tuned to the people we actually are.

You can tell a lot about people by what they search for on the Internet. While the prospect of sifting through Internet histories sounds invasive, some people who work with big data have noble intentions to use analysis of Internet searches for healthcare analysis purposes. Officials at the Food and Drug Administration are talking with Google about using the company’s search technology to identify the side effects of drugs that it might not already know about, according to Bloomberg News.

Health Data

The FDA already tracks these problematic side effects, also called adverse events. But the agency only knows about the adverse events that are reported and collected in a database, explains Regulatory Focus. Reports of adverse events can come from drug companies, patients, and doctors. But these voluntary reports can be uneven and sporadic.

The FDA hopes studying Internet search data can uncover the symptoms and side effects that people are looking up, Bloomberg explains. This analysis of big data could identify the patterns and common terms associated with side effects and the drugs that may be causing them. It might even identify possible adverse events earlier than they are reported to FDA by physicians and drug companies.

According to a Bloomberg review of FDA documents, the agency spoke with Google officials who wrote a 2013 research paper about using search queries to identify adverse events. But it’s not the first time that the FDA has considered using big data to try to identify adverse events. In 2014, FDA researchers published a letter in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics making the case that search engine logs could be used to identify adverse events, according to Regulatory Focus. Working with Google makes sense for the FDA because it would mark a major advance over the old system of relying on patients, physicians, and drug companies to report potential problems about medicines.

Future Treatment

Someday, the standard of care for cancer could be tiny nanorobots that circulate through the body in order to hunt down tumor cells. Once these nanorobots identify their cancer targets, they precisely deliver a payload of cancer medication directly to the tumor. The result is a more precise form of medicine that should spare patients of some of the side effects associated with powerful cancer drugs. But this vision of the future is not some distant reality. Scientists at Polytechnique Montreal Universite and McGill University in Canada recently published research showing how this new nanotech-approach to cancer care could work.


The scientific breakthrough was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The research is still in its early stages. Scientists studied their technology in mice, using nanorobots to treat colorectal tumors. After being injected into the test subject, the nanorobots find their targets by detecting hypoxic zones – the oxygen-depleted areas of tumors, explains Science Daily. These zones are created by the rapid consumption of oxygen by fast-growing tumors, and they can be resistant to many cancer therapies. The university researchers believe that this nanotechnology could offer a new way to deliver cancer drugs to these tough spots.

While the Canadian nanorobot research is still in the early stages, the tech industry is working other ways to develop nanotechnology for clinical applications. Google aims to use nanotechnology to detect disease. The tech giant believes that nanoparticles could be used as a diagnostic tool. The company is researching ways to deliver these nanoparticles in the form of a pill, according to Wired magazine. Once ingested, these tiny particles move throughout a patient’s bloodstream in their search for signs of disease, such as cancer, or cardiovascular problems. Google is also researching how a wearable device could work in tandem with the nanoparticles, tracking their movement throughout the patient’s body. When the particles have done their diagnostic work, these magnetic particles would be gathered at one place to impart the information that they have gathered.

“We call them back to one place, and we ask them: ‘Hey, what did you see? Did you find cancer? Did you see something that looks like a fragile plaque for a heart attack? Did you see too much sodium,’” Andrew Conrad, head of life sciences at Google X told Wired magazine.


But more than diagnosing diseases more quickly, Google is also working on therapeutic applications of nanotechnology. Google’s Ray Kurzweil believes that nanotechnology will soon play a key role in increasing the human life span. Kurzweil, who holds the title of “chief futurist” at Google, says that human longevity will increase with the use of nanobots – microscopic robots that will have the power to work with the human immune system to fight disease and infection.  This technology could find its way into clinical applications within 30 years, Kurzweil told the Science Explorer. Eventually, nanobots could be programmed to deal with particular pathogens. If new biological pathogens emerge, those robots could simply download new software to address the new threat, Kurzweil said.

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Georg Tichy

Georg Tichy is a management consultant in Europe, focusing on top-management consultancy, projectmanagement, corporate reporting and fundingsupport. Dr. Georg Tichy is also trainer, lecturer at university and advisor on current economic issues. Contact me or Book a Meeting