From penicillin to 3D-printed kidneys, the medical field has long served as a major catalyst of human ingenuity. In Colorado, that innovation doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Centennial State institutions are helping pioneer treatments that could revolutionize health care—both today and in the years ahead.
A Gilded Pill
About 416,000 adults in Colorado suffer from diabetes. No wonder, then, that oral insulin (read: no more needles) is considered the holy grail of diabetes care. Denver’s Creekside Endocrine Associates is part of the quest as one of only 37 places in the country testing an insulin pill developed by New York’s Oramed Pharmaceutical. The key is ensuring the capsule reaches the liver before dissolving in stomach acid. If successful, the pill could also drastically lower the average cost of diabetes care, which is currently nearly $10,000 a year in the United States.
This past August, UCHealth introduced the world to Alexa’s nerdy cousin, Livi. An artificial-intelligence-based virtual assistant, Livi can be summoned on an Amazon Echo by saying “Alexa, ask UCHealth.” Users can then pepper her with commands like Email me information on Crohn’s disease or Find me a neurologist, and Livi will consult network sources to locate the information. UCHealth hopes to expand Livi’s capabilities over the next few years. This fall, for example, she was integrated into its electronic medical record system and mobile app so she can check your test results and appointment times.
In 2017, Children’s Hospital Colorado unveiled one of the first full-time hospital gaming and technology departments in the world. Patients with movement-debilitating illnesses such as cerebral palsy get the much-needed, potentially dexterity-improving activity they require by donning virtual reality and augmented reality headsets and, for example, exploring alien planets. The diversions can also make it easier for kids to undergo difficult treatments: The anxiety a child feels before a lumbar puncture—an injection of medicine into her spinal fluid—might be lessened if she can confront the procedure while wielding a lightsaber.
Snake Venom Salesman
A professor at the University of Northern Colorado might have finally found a way for serpents to pay penance for the whole exile-from-Eden thing: Stephen Mackessy’s Venom Analysis Lab, which launched in the mid-1990s, has shown that toxins from some venomous snakes are capable of preventing cancer cells from metastasizing. The next step (likely still years away) is finding an application method that would weaponize compounds in the venom against a human’s cancer without harming the human’s body.
Both Lutheran Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente are early practitioners of “pharmacogenomics”—basically, how your DNA affects your body’s reactions to medicines. In Lutheran’s pilot program, primary care providers give some patients the option of a 20-second cheek swab. Pharmacists and doctors can use subsequent genetic-testing reports to provide recommendations, such as lowering a dosage because genetic traits reveal your body might absorb drugs faster or suggesting you avoid a particular medication.