We are at the dawn of a technological revolution which will see a complete disruption of both human and veterinary medicine. Bleeding-edge technologies are being leveraged to achieve things that were previously thought to be purely science fiction. Here are what I believe to be the top 5 most influential technologies and how they are set to change veterinary medicine forever.
1. The Internet of Animals
The Internet of Things (IoT) is set to reach 500 billion connected devices by 2030 and a large proportion of these will be used by pets. From smart litter boxes and feeding bowls to activity trackers and web cams, the future will see our pets increasingly connected and this can have a huge benefit on their health.
A smart litter box can collect data on a cat’s weight, amount of waste, frequency of visits and behaviour and compile this into analytics to monitor their health. An owner can then look for trends and changes which might signify that their pet is unwell. Likewise, a smart feeding bowl can help in reducing the risk of obesity and record the times a pet eats and how much food is consumed. All this information can be delivered to an owner via an app on their smartphone.
Wearables such as fitness trackers will be able to do so much more in the future in terms of health monitoring. Non-invasive sensors built into collars will be able to gather a huge amount of information about a pet, including heart rate, respiratory rate and activity so that an owner can be notified quickly of fluctuations.
And it won’t be long until wearables are superseded by ‘inside-ables’ as tiny ingestible sensors are already being used in agriculture, particularly with dairy cows. As the cost of ingestible technology decreases, there is a definite market for such tech in the pet sector. As our pets can’t tell us when they are feeling unwell, who wouldn’t want an alert sent to their smartphone when their cat or dog is feeling poorly? Constant health monitoring in the future would prevent suffering or life-threatening situations by acting in the same ways as a ‘check engine’ light on a car.
2. Gene therapy
Back in 2001, a group of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine used gene therapy to give sight to three puppies that had been born blind due to a genetic disease called LCA – a condition that also affects around 10,000 people.
Researchers identified the mutant gene that causes blindness and replaced it with a gene they had created in the laboratory by planting it inside a virus and injecting it into the puppies’ eyes. The virus ‘infected’ the eyes with the replacement gene and within a month the dogs could see for the first time in their lives.
In 2016, a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina published the findings from a study into dogs with FV11 deficiency – a genetic bleeding disorder where there is inadequate production of a blood-clotting protein. Using a single gene-therapy injection with the missing gene enclosed inside the common cold virus, the condition was corrected.
So far we have only just scratched the surface of what gene therapy can achieve but it’s clear there are exciting applications within veterinary medicine.
3. Robotic surgery
Surgical robots are already being used in human medicine but it won’t be long until they are commonplace in a veterinary surgery too. The Robotic-assisted Da Vinci Surgical System has been designed to help with complex surgery using a minimally invasive approach to operating on human cancer patients.
Small incisions are used to insert miniaturised instruments and a high-definition 3D camera, which the surgeon controls from a console. This enables procedures to be carried out that would not be possible with a surgeon’s hands.
In April 2015 a lion from Italy’s Parco Safari delle Langhe Safari Park was the first animal to benefit from robotic surgery. The lion successfully had an adrenal tumour removed by a surgical robot at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Lodi. The surgeon was able to work remotely from the robot’s console with a 3D high-definition view of the animal’s abdomen. This pioneering operation avoided the major tissue damage and the long, stressful recovery that traditional surgery would have meant.
The next stage for robotic surgery is to remove the surgeon altogether. In May 2016 a robot successfully performed soft tissue surgery all by itself for the first time, which is leading the way to autonomous operations. By taking human intervention out of the equation it is believed that any complications could be reduced and the safety and efficacy of operations improved.
4. 3D printing
3D-printing prosthetics have been available to people with limb loss in recent years and now pets are getting in on the action. The beauty of 3D-printed prosthetics is that they can be completely personalised and designed to fit a wearer exactly. They can also be produced much cheaper and more quickly than a traditional prosthetic.
A husky-cross called Derby was the first dog to be fitted with a pair of bespoke 3D-printed legs. He was born with deformed front legs and severely struggled with his mobility even with a set of special doggy wheels. After several modifications to the original design, Derby’s final pair of legs enabled him to run, jump and even sit just like a normal dog.
The same company that created the legs for Derby has gone on to help more than 10,000 dogs with damaged cruciate ligaments by 3D printing special implants for them. The knee implants have meant that surgery for the condition is now easier and patients can benefit from a faster recovery time compared to previous methods.
Scientists are already working towards 3D printing human organs and skin for transplant, as well as 3D printing drugs.
Researchers at the UCL School of Pharmacy have been using 3D printing methods to produce pills in a variety of shapes to alter the release rate of the drugs. These findings will help manufacturers design pill shapes that can accurately release the drugs at precisely defined rates. In the future you, or your pet, could take just one pill a day containing all the medication you need, completely customised to your unique requirements and be released at the right dose at the right time.
5. Artificial intelligence
Super computers equipped with artificial intelligence are able to analyse enormous amounts of data and cross-reference it quickly in a way no human ever could. This has opened up a whole new way to diagnose disease and is already proving to be very successful.
IBM’s super computer, Watson, correctly diagnosed a patient within minutes in 2016 – something doctors had failed to do after months. The woman from Japan was being treated for leukaemia but doctors were puzzled as to why the treatment she was being given wasn’t being effective. After just 10 minutes studying the patient’s medicial information, Watson was able to cross-reference her condition against 20 million oncological records that had been uploaded to it by doctors from the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science. Watson found that the patient had a different form of leukaemia to the one that had previously been diagnosed, which required different treatment.
A similar super computer has now been developed specially for the veterinary profession. Sofie is powered by Watson’s cognitive computing algorithms and has been trained by veterinarians for veterinarians
Vets can simply type a question into the “Ask Sofie” app on their smartphones based on a patient’s initial consultation and the computer returns focused, evidence-based treatment options. Sofie works in a different way to a search engine as it actually understands natural human language, rather than relying on keywords.
Dr Gordon Roberts
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