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Tech is driving rapid progress in laboratory diagnostic tools. Yet many important devices remain unavailable in low-resource settings around the world. And even in the most advanced healthcare systems, we still can’t effectively detect and treat many types of diseases. But there are signs that diagnostic technologies are becoming more powerful and affordable for everyone. Here are three trends that can bolster healthcare systems everywhere.
Miniaturization and Automation
Many laboratory devices today are large and technically-advanced machines that require special skills to use. Some are too expensive and complex for low-resource settings, but researchers are working to make them more automated and compact. This improves portability and reduces scope for human error, which broadens access and increases the reliability of diagnostic tests.
As diagnostics get smaller, some of them can be moved out of the lab and closer to the patient. These “point-of-care” (POC) technologies obviate the need to transport samples, enabling faster return of results. This can save lives in critical situations, such as infectious disease outbreaks or acute medical crises. It also has advantages for developing countries, where poor infrastructure means that samples can get lost or spoiled before they reach a central lab for analysis.
Many organizations are working to drive innovation in POC diagnostics. The XPRIZE foundation, for example, launched a competition in 2012 to create a multi-purpose diagnostic device modeled after the medical tricorder from Star Trek. Sponsored by Qualcomm, the competition recently announced two winners—Final Frontier Medical Devices from the U.S. and Dynamical Biomarkers Group from Taiwan—which both built clever prototypes for portable diagnostic systems that cover a range of health conditions.
“POC diagnostics still face major challenges related to affordability, quality, and regulation,” says Greg Stutman, Director of Global Solutions at Boston Biomedical Consultants, a practice group at QuintilesIMS focused on the in vitro diagnostics industry. “We see a lot of innovation happening and great potential for POC across many geographies and segments, but do not expect POC to displace the central lab.”
Advances in Genomics
As sequencing becomes less expensive and more precise, researchers are constantly developing new ways to screen for genetic health risks or match treatments to genetic attributes. Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), an early-stage company that Techonomy profiled in January, is one of the many companies pushing progress in this field. Their approach involves studying relationships between genomic data and results from clinical exams about what’s actually happening in the body to generate insights across a wide spectrum of disease categories. This helps the individuals studied and leads to benefits for researchers.
Others are using genomics to focus specifically on cancer diagnostics. Some believe that they may eventually be able to detect many forms of cancer with a simple blood test. This approach, known as a “liquid biopsy,” could eventually prove to be a compelling alternative to the invasive tissue biopsies that are common today. Grail, which was founded in 2016 by executives from sequencing giant Illumina, raised nearly $1 billion to work on liquid biopsy technologies. Guardant Health, another leader in the field, raised roughly $360 million in May. (A recent session at Techonomy Health in New York explored the connection between genomics and progress in cancer.)
While most cutting-edge genomics technologies are still only available in affluent countries, some companies are bringing low-cost gene tests to emerging markets. Xcode, for instance, is an India-based company that develops and distributes DNA tests for as low as 1000 rupees (USD $15). The company also aims to support research on genetic diversity in India, where in-group marriages are still common among some religious, caste, and social groups.
Connected Diagnostics 
Diagnostic devices are increasingly getting connected to digital networks that enable collection, aggregation, and analysis of diagnostic data. This offers new capabilities for medical research and population health management. In 2015, for example, Techonomy reported on a consortium that developed connected diagnostics for tuberculosis research in South Africa. Systems like these can support understanding of disease transmission trends and identify at-risk locations that require proactive interventions.
Insurance companies are also using connected diagnostics to improve clinical outcomes and reduce claims costs. At Techonomy Health, Oscar CEO Mario Schlosser described how his company leverages diagnostic data to help physicians: “Doctors under the Oscar network can log into provider apps that give them all the data we have about members…including conditions that we suspect their patients might have based on lab tests we’ve seen.”
As the pace of innovation in laboratory diagnostics increases, we are inching ever closer to a world in which healthcare services can be personalized to an individual’s unique biological and behavioral attributes. This new paradigm of care, often referred to as “precision medicine,” holds potential to usher in a new era of health, wellness, and longevity. New diagnostic technologies will play a central role.
Will Greene is a writer and strategy consultant focused on Asia’s emerging R&D ecosystems. You can find him on LinkedIn.