Health care is constantly changing — from new technologies and methods used by doctors to legislation and policies that shift the entire landscape of medicine and health insurance. Within Highmark Health’s culture of innovation, new ideas are constantly being created, reviewed, discussed and implemented. With that in mind, this Links to the Future series will highlight some of the many fascinating articles and studies we come across, with a focus on the research, technologies, and practices that will change and save lives in the near and distant future.


Wearable Tech Makes Stroke Rehab Easier

What Happened? Students at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering developed a program to make rehab after a stroke easier for those recovering. Using wearable, motion-sensing technology alongside smartphone and PC applications, patients are able to perform rehab tasks by themselves in an engaging, virtual reality environment.

Why Does It Matter? It’s easy for stroke victims to be discouraged when going through rehab. Often, exercises require repetitive movements that can grow tedious quickly. This new technology allows those in rehab to perform similar tasks and exercises without the tedium, by employing virtual reality and feedback systems. The program also allows patients to perform more rehab tasks on their own, a contrast to traditional stroke rehab programs that often require caregivers or physical therapists to guide patients.

What’s Next? The students are working to patent their technology and launch a start-up company, where they’ll continue to work with stroke survivors on the road to recovery.

Tumor-Targeting Nanorobots Could Be the Future of Cancer Care

What Happened? Prompting one of the coolest titles I’ve ever written, researchers at a trio of universities have developed nanorobots that travel through the bloodstream, delivering drugs directly to the cancer cells in tumors.

Why Does It Matter? Because these nanorobots target cancerous cells directly, the toxic drugs don’t affect healthy tissue and organs around the tumor — a side effect of traditional treatment and delivery methods. This approach allows doctors to reduce the dosage administered, as well as target cancerous cells that were previously difficult to treat effectively, while reducing the effect of the potent drugs on the rest of the body.

What’s Next? So far, the researchers have only tested this approach on mice; though, their research paper indicates those tests were promising. While this method is a long way off from human trials, the early results are enough to get excited about.

Spinal Cord Stimulation Helps Paralyzed Patients Move

What Happened? In a “proof-of-concept” study, researchers at UCLA found that stimulating the spinal cord helped two people with quadriplegia move voluntary muscles in their hands and arms.

Why Does It Matter? Past research has shown that spinal cord stimulation can help patients paralyzed from the chest down to regain some function in their legs, but this is an exciting initial development in successfully restoring function to the upper limbs. Think about everything you do with your hands and arms — and you’ll see why recovering function in the upper limbs is a very big deal when it comes to improving quality of life for people dealing with paralysis.

What’s Next? The research team is planning further studies with more patients to learn about the best ways to deliver this treatment and evaluate long-term safety.

Alzheimer’s Treatment Could “Chip Away” at Damage in Brain

What Happened? A team at Biogen is testing an antibody that, in large doses, breaks down amyloid — the plaque in the brain that builds up in abnormal amounts when people develop Alzheimer’s. In some patients, the reduction of plaque correlated with a slowing of cognitive decline.

Why Does It Matter? One researcher noted that this antibody can eliminate “the majority” of plaque buildup, adding that this kind of treatment shows promise in slowing the loss of cognitive function for Alzheimer’s patients — and may eventually play a significant preventive role and even help reverse the loss of cognitive function.

What’s Next? The company is conducting ongoing trials to better understand the antibody’s effects and side-effects — including brain swelling, especially at higher doses. Similar amyloid-busting drugs are being developed by other companies as well. Researchers are hopeful that this approach could one day help prevent, slow, or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

U.S. Making Progress in Improving Maternal, Infant, and Child Health

What Happened? Healthy People 2020 is part of a series of 10-year initiatives to bring together people from throughout the health care system to set and achieve goals for improving our country’s health. The program tracks and reports on 26 leading health indicators to gauge long-term progress. The good news in its latest report: Infant mortality and preterm birth rates both dropped to their Healthy People 2020 targets. During the most recent 10-year data periods available, infant mortality dropped 11.8 percent (to about six deaths per 1,000 live births), and the percent of live births that were delivered preterm (less than 37 weeks) decreased 9.6 percent.

Why Does It Matter? If you’re like me, population-based statistics don’t inspire the same excitement about the future as, say, tumor-targeting nanorobots. But these statistics are actually a big deal. Infant mortality rates, in particular, are widely considered as a reliable indicator of the overall health of a population, as well as the quality and accessibility of its health care.

What’s Next? The basic idea of the Healthy People initiatives is to monitor and report on key health indicators in order to keep improving the future. And — there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The rate in this report would still have the U.S. last on this list of 27 wealthy nations.