Open source medicine puts health above profits

There is an open source revolution brewing in health care where noble motivations prevail over profit.

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There is great potential for robot-assisted surgeries (RAS). Two common surgeries, prostate removal and hysterectomies, have been routinely performed using RAS for several years. They use smaller incisions, and are less invasive, so there is less pain and patients heal faster. Giving surgeons a more accurate view inside the body should result in more precise surgeries with less damage, and someday the ability to perform surgeries that are now considered too risky because they're too close to vital structures such as arteries, nerves, or brain tissue. Heart surgery is exceptionally challenging because the heart is in constant motion. Traditional heart surgery involves hooking up the patient to a heart-lung machine and stopping the heart. Raven could make "beating heart" surgery a reality by compensating for the movement of a beating heart.

Raven could also enable remote-control surgery over the Internet or other networks. Before Raven, surgery robots were very expensive and proprietary, and impossible to modify or build research on. The open Raven platform should result in significant progress. This YouTube video gives a brief demonstration of Raven II in action.

To learn more, geek out to your heart's content on the papers linked on the Raven project page, and check out the feast of videos.

Personal health care revolution

Want to be a citizen scientist? Join a study? Organize a study? Probe your own genome for health risks, learn surprising facts about your ancestry, and share your findings with other citizen scientists? Thanks to DIYgenomics you can. Some of the currently running studies are "Aging #1: Telomere length and telomerase activation therapy", "Aging #2: Risk reduction for common aging conditions through monitoring and intervention", "MTHFR / Vitamin B deficiency and linkage with homocysteine levels", and "Knowledge generation through self-experimentation". The various studies rely on open source-based services such as Google Docs and Genomera, which provides a free platform for hosting open health studies.

Many studies incorporate personal DNA tests from retail DNA labs such as 23andme, Decodeme, and Navigenics. DIYgenomics even has a mobile app (iPhone and Android) for comparing profiles from all three side-by-side.

fig1-iphone.jpgSource: Courtesy of Melanie Swan
Figure 1: DIYgenomics iPhone app comparing DNA profiles

The price of DNA testing has dropped dramatically, for example a mere $207 plus a bit of spit gets you a partial genotyping from 23andme. If you want a complete profile that will cost a few thousand dollars (which is not provided by 23andme), which is a remarkable drop from the six-figure price tags of just a few years ago. The 23andme profile looks for selected SNPs, which are single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). You can think of SNPs as individual variations in your genome sequence, the differences that make you you and not someone else. Then 23andme generates a report from these results that shows your risk factors for 237 diseases and conditions, whether you are a carrier of any of these, and potential responses to certain drugs. You also get information on your ancestry. Sadly, it is unlikely that you will learn you were descended from exotic royalty. But you may learn you have certain traits or risk factors, and then investigate further. You might get genetic counseling, make some lifestyle changes, get certain health screenings, and share your experiences and findings. It's a revolution in personal health care because we can get all kinds of amazing information about ourselves at a low cost, and without gatekeepers.

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