Star Trek-style scanner creates 'digital twin' to track your health
US-based start-up QBio can scan hundreds of biomarkers in your body in 15 minutes.
Imagine a Star Trek-style body scanner that examines your body in such depth that it can produce a 3D computerised model to track your health. Jeff Kaditz didn’t just imagine it, he built one. He’s the CEO of QBio, a US start-up that wants to facilitate a data-led, personalised approach to medicine. The firm’s scanner measures hundreds of biomarkers in a person’s body and tracks them over time in a so-called digital twin – a sort of databank-cum-avator of your body. Here, he tells us what the physical of the future looks like and how it will revolutionise healthcare.
What is a digital twin?
It’s basically a three-dimensional digital model of something. It isn't new actually. In manufacturing, having a digital twin of, say, an aeroplane engine lets you tweak the design and see how it affects the model. The human body is different. It’s more that we're tracking what's changing in a digital twin across all these different biomarkers of your body, and identifying the progression of disease much earlier. So more of a diagnostic.
How does the scanner work?
The core physics that it uses is magnetic resonance, plus a lot of other sensors, but the significance of it is that it's much cheaper and easier to site. The most important thing for us is that we could do these entire full-body scans in 15 minutes or less.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
COVID has actually helped to tell our story. The way we envision the future of healthcare is similar to the way we've done triage for COVID. You have these low-cost, drive-through sites where you don't really have highly skilled labour operating them. In 20 minutes, I get my nose swabbed, I go home and I get a text message if I have to go in.
We think the same thing should be done for the entire body. Imagine you have low-cost sites where, in 20 minutes, everything can be measured about your body, once a year. And if there's an issue, you get a notification on your phone.
What does the scanner measure?
The scanner looks at structural change, so it's really measuring things on the size of a thousandth of a metre and then looking for changes there. We can measure properties and structures in your body and correlate that with genetic risks and chemical risks taken from more traditional tests.
How many biomarkers does the test actually measure?
It's going to be in the many hundreds. The amount of fat in your liver, the amount of visceral fat in your body, fat infiltration of muscles as you get older. There are certain volumes of the structures inside your brain that we know are related to dementia or degenerative diseases. The list goes on and on. And the rate at which these things change can tell you a lot.
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What’s the advantage of seeing changes over time?
Right now the way diagnostics are done is based on single variables measured at a single point in time. And they don't work. The analogy I like to use is Shazam: you play a song and it identifies it really quickly. If you played a single note and sent it to Shazam that wouldn’t work because lots of songs have the same note. You need to see the sequence of notes to see what makes the song unique.
What are the advantages beyond diagnostics?
One big beef that I have with the healthcare system is we tend to store the output of our analysis, like a doctor's diagnosis, but not the data that went into the decision. Which means we can't learn from mistakes. To me, the real value for this platform is in triage.
Working out who actually needs healthcare?
Yeah, the human labour. The doctor's time is really the most precious resource we have in healthcare because the population is growing faster than we create doctors. Doctors are getting burned out. What we need is the ability, without any skilled labour, to stratify risk in a population. The opportunity here is if we can gather enough information, we can say, ‘Here's the 200 patients you need to see as soon as possible. The rest of them you probably don't need to see this year.’ Right now, healthcare is first come, first serve, which is really bad.
Is this kind of personalised, preventative healthcare data the future of medicine?
Yeah, my opinion on personalised and preventative is that they're not separate things. I think the goal is kind of proactive care. The reason you need personalisation is because population references in healthcare aren't real. There's a big statistical assumption that human health is roughly a normal distribution. So when you see a population reference, a lot of times it's taken from a bunch of middle aged white guys. If you’re an African woman, it's not that useful. The idea of a population reference in the age of genomics seems weird to me. We know we're all unique.
How much did your own experience with the healthcare system help you to shape this platform?
I had a situation where I was 27, an active triathlete, and I was told I was fine. Then three months later I was told if I don't get a hip replacement in the next week then they may have to amputate my leg. But the specific experience was less important than the generalisation: we all know people who have had terrible experiences with the healthcare system.
Someone has these weird symptoms and they don’t know what’s wrong. They get bounced around specialists and every time they see a new doctor, they measure the same things they've already measured. By the time they figure out what's actually wrong, it's a year later and it's now not treatable.
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Are you concerned that as we get more and more data about our bodies, that leads to greater health anxiety for some people?
I think that has to be a consideration. But on the other hand not looking at the data is almost as valuable as capturing and looking at it. I eat healthily and exercise, but I'm not a health nut or biohacker. I want to live my life. I'm fine having all the data recorded and stored somewhere, because it's an insurance policy. I'm preparing for the time when doctors need this information to figure out what's wrong as quickly as possible.
The other question that arises is data ownership, which I guess is a bit of a minefield.
I don't think it's a minefield at all. I mean, there's not even a question. I don't think anybody should own information about your body besides you, especially when you're paying for it. There's biotech companies out there today who won't share your raw data. They'll scan your genes and they won't even send your sequence back, they'll only send your analysis. To me, that's reprehensible.
People having complete control of the information, being able to share it, what that does is create almost a liquidity in providers. It means that if I don't like an answer or the attention that I'm getting, I can ask somebody else and they don't even have to be physically near me. It could be a doctor in India.
Do you have a road map for how this technology changes the world?
We have more than a 10-year road map in terms of where this can go, but I won't be satisfied until we've effectively replicated medbay in Star Trek where I can walk into a room, talk to a virtual personality, they can tell me if there's any problems and potentially fix them on the spot.
A former deputy editor at Science Focus, Ian once undertook a scientific ranking of the UK's best rollercoasters on behalf of the magazine. He is now a freelance writer, which is frankly a lot less fun.