If 2007 was the year of Twitter and 2009 the year of FourSquare, 2011 will be recalled as the year of the Quantified Self, say trend spotters. Individuals are using gizmos to collect, analyze, and share personal health data in real-time on social media. Our obsessions, it would appear, are moving from the outside world to our innermost beings.
envision a future where your energy level, mood, sleep pattern, and even stool can be consistently monitored and analyzed as you drive home from work, shower, eat, brush your teeth, and sleep. The goal is to help you monitor your health and heighten your self-awareness.
Cyberspace is already playing a role in lifelogging, but it is now poised to recombine with biotechnology. Genetic assaying is moving beyond the research lab and its familiar association with paternity testing to become a tool to reverse fatal diseases.
Yuri van Geest, whom I met at the recent MLove ConFestival in Berlin, is a business and venture capital adviser for the research group Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology. He told me about a stealth startup that will analyze the DNA in a single drop of blood to help Africans provide lifesaving treatments for tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV.
New developments in microfluidics, the manipulation of small volumes of fluid and nanotechnology, have already been tested in Rwanda to help health workers complete an ELISA test instantaneously, rather than sending it to faraway labs for results that may take days or weeks.
The novelty of the Harvard-MIT venture is that the data will be collected by health workers and analyzed instantaneously in cyberspace over a most ubiquitous tool: the smartphone.
Mobile sensors are already available for monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, sleep, pathogens, and chemicals in the environment. But these sensors can often give false positives -- a lack of accuracy that can be particularly unwanted in testing for something like HIV.
In a matter of months, this new project hopes to produce a mobile DNA sampling interface that will render the current technology obsolete and provide more granular results in the field.
Currently, only 0.2 percent of the human genome can actually be read -- at a cost of $5,000. It could be five years before the full genome can be read at the same cost. “Zero cost DNA profiling is what we are heading towards,” says van Geest.
This is why his project is targeting Africa, which offers the economies of scale and scope Western Europe would not.
Harvard-MIT must be lauded for its initiative to extend the benefits of mobile health and DNA testing to Africa, but ethical issues hover over the project, including the privacy of DNA data. Also, who owns that data -- the sampler or the sampled?
— Vineeta Shetty is Chief Creatrix of Vistara, an independent communications consultancy based in Mumbai.