<small><small>By Jeff Wile, EVP, Ensono Digital</small></small>
<small>How the convergence of exponential technologies is helping Mayo Clinic improve and extend life—exponentially.
In a 2008 television interview, Dr. Aubrey de Grey caused quite a stir when he hypothesized that the first person to live to 1,000 years old had already been born. He then doubled down by adding that he or she “might even be between 50 and 60 years old already.”1
Most people who heard his declaration dismissed it as hyperbole or the rantings of someone desperate for audience attention. Yet Dr. de Grey was not some unknown researcher or discredited hack. He was a Cambridge PhD and, at the time, a renowned expert in senescence — the science of biological aging — who went on to serve as the first Chief Research Scientist at SENS Research Foundation in 2009. Whether you believe de Grey’s claims were well founded, simple exaggeration or the outright delusions of someone who spent too much time in the lab largely depends on how closely you are paying attention. While most credible medical researchers and doctors try to tone down de Grey’s passion, they also take the science surrounding life enhancement and extension very seriously.
One such researcher is James Kirkland of Mayo Clinic. An MD and PhD senescence researcher and the former Director of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Kirkland articulated the circumspection shared by many of his peers in an October 2022 interview with MIT Technology Review2: “Most of these trials are going to fail. Most trials do. People should try to be dispassionate, even though everyone has a stake in this game. I mean, every living person does.”
Kirkland’s fitting and measured remarks suggest that while the science is certainly exciting, we shouldn’t go making New Year’s Eve 2999 plans anytime soon. Yet his leveling of expectations aside, one could argue that no organization is doing more than his own in the application of exponential technologies to realize the dream of this radical healthcare evolution — both the quality of life as we age and our lifespan itself.
1 Aux frontières de l’immortalité, dir. Gerald Caillat, 2008. 2“The bird is fine, the bird is fine, the bird is fine, it’s dead,” MIT Technology Review, Jonathan Weiner, October 2022.
159 years at the cutting edge of healthcare innovation
Founded in Rochester, Minnesota in 1864 by Dr. William Worral Mayo and his sons William and Charles, Mayo Clinic is today a world-renowned center of medical advancement and innovation dedicated to solving the world’s toughest medical challenges and, in their own words, “make the impossible POSSIBLE.”
Each year, more than a million people from nearly 140 countries arrive at Mayo Clinic, from esteemed heads of state and glittering media stars to ordinary folks from every walk of life. They’re all drawn by its unequaled breadth and depth of expertise and experience, its relentless pursuit of progress, and the deeply patient-centered approach it pioneered at its founding and has been evolving and enriching ever since—perfectly encapsulated in its stated mission to “inspire hope, while promoting health through integrated clinical practice, education and research.”
The glory of medicine is that it is constantly moving forward.
In service of that mission, Mayo Clinic has always forged fearlessly and headlong into the medical unknown — and emerged with profoundly life- and world-changing breakthroughs. Its staggering list of “firsts” includes performing the first successful open-heart surgery in 1955, developing and opening the first ICU in 1956, bringing the first CT scanning device to the U.S. in 1973, and the list goes on.3
Exponential tech: The key to unlocking better health outcomes
It comes as no surprise that today, Mayo Clinic is at the vanguard of exploration, discovery and application of AI-based tools and other exponential technologies to ignite the next revolution in healthcare. While most of us are just trying to catch up with and process the head-spinning pace of technological change and its implications, Mayo Clinic is already light-years ahead. In its labs, institutes, exam rooms and operating theaters, the stuff of science fiction and futurist fantasy is transforming the experience and outcomes of healthcare right now.
Here are five key areas where Mayo Clinic’s application of exponential technologies is making the future of healthcare a present-day reality:
#1) Stopping stroke in its tracks with robotics
The use of robots in medicine is widespread and goes far beyond the cliched image of spindly-limbed machines poking at a body on an operating table. As just one example of a pioneering innovation on the robotics front, Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation (CFI) supported the development and launch of a “stroke robot” that enables Mayo physicians to consult with patients from a remote location at the first possible signs of a stroke, enabling evaluation, assessment and diagnosis within the brief critical window when treatment can still be effective. This advancement presaged the now-mainstream practice of telemedicine; today, it is an integral part of Mayo Clinic’s telestroke care.4
4“Stroke robot,” mayoclinic.org, January 2014.
#2) Advancing surgical precision with 3D printing
3D printing has proven a revolutionary force across the field of medicine, offering groundbreaking solutions from custom-fitted prosthetic limbs and orthopedic implants to scaffolding that enables the creation of artificial tissue and organs. Mayo Clinic has taken the application of 3D printing technology to new levels, producing life-size, patient-customized models of organs that enable physicians to improve the accuracy, efficacy, and minimally invasive nature of complex surgeries and map out intricate surgical procedures in advance, with far greater precision.5
#3) Destroying disease with CRISPR gene editing
From eliminating heritable diseases to neutering the impact of cancer, gene therapy using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology—effectively cutting and pasting genes to remove or inhibit disease-causing mutations — holds incredible promise. In practice, its application remains limited. In the U.S., gene therapy is only available in clinical trials, some of which have shown meaningful success in treating diseases including leukemia, hemophilia and certain types of blindness. More research is needed to overcome the ethical, technical and knowledge-gap challenges surrounding gene editing, and Mayo Clinic is at the forefront of this pursuit, with researchers actively studying its appropriate and effective application6, including:
Replacing and fixing mutated genes: Genes that are defective or non-functional can cause some cells to become diseased. A gene called “p53,” for instance, normally prevents tumor growth; several types of cancer have been linked to problems with it. Replacing a defective p53 gene could trigger the cancer cells to die off. Similarly, turning mutated disease-causing genes “off,” or healthy, disease-preventing genes “on,” could have the potential to inhibit certain diseases. Mayo Clinic’s gene and cell therapy accelerator, Mayflower Bioventures, recently launched a new biotech startup focused on gene editing therapies for mitochondrial diseases, a devastating group of disorders which currently have no effective treatments and often result in early childhood death.7
Training the immune system: Some cancer cells fly under the radar of the immune system: because it doesn’t recognize them as intruders, it doesn’t attack them and therefore doesn’t emit the biochemical markers that would show up as red flags in blood work, leading to potentially fatal delays in detection and treatment. Gene therapy, specifically immunotherapy, has the potential to train the immune system to recognize and respond to these stealth threats—and quantum computing has the potential to take this even further.
It’s no surprise that today, Mayo Clinic is at the vanguard of exploration, discovery and application of AI-based tools and other exponential technologies to unlock better health outcomes.
5“How 3D printing improves medical care,”mcpress.mayoclinic.org, June 2022. 6“Gene Therapy Overview,” mayoclinic.org, December 2017. 7“First startup blooms from Mayo Clinic cell and gene therapy accelerator with $750 million Cellectis partnership,” fiercebiotech.com, January 2023.
Any one of these technologies will deliver breakthrough improvements to health and longevity that our predecessors could have only imagined.
#4) Crushing cancer with nanotechnology
The manipulation of matter on a nanoscale level has significant potential benefits in the field of medicine. The Translational Nanomedicine Program at Mayo Clinic is carrying out research that facilitates the progress of nanoparticle theory and technology, with an eye toward application in cancer diagnosis and treatment.8 The program is currently engaged in several projects aimed at creating a nanobiosensor as well as nanoplatforms to administer drugs and track results. Mayo Clinic anticipates that the completed research will help to:
Facilitate earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer — one of the most difficult cancers to detect in early stages.
Offer drug delivery for the treatment of breast cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, melanoma, pancreatic cancer and renal cancer.
Enable improved monitoring of patient outcomes following cancer treatment.
#5) Decoding neural conversations with BCI
Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology establishes a direct connection between the brain and an external device, enabling individuals to interact with their environment via brain activity (think controlling prosthetic limbs or communicating thoughts to a screen) and empowering clinicians and researchers to more effectively study and understand brain function. Leveraging advanced electrocorticographic (EEG) and stereoencephalographic (SEEG) brain signal monitoring technology while observing patients perform tasks involving speech, language and music, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of how the brain functions in these areas, with the ultimate goal of improving treatment for patients with neurological conditions.
Mayo Clinic is currently utilizing this technology in a clinical trial with advanced epilepsy patients, designed to enhance comprehension of how different parts of the human brain communicate with each other and work together to process information.9 (Even Elon Musk has gotten into the game—see the next page for more details).
Any one of these technologies and areas of exploration will, by itself, deliver breakthrough improvements to health and longevity that our predecessors could have only imagined — the “impossible made possible.” But it is the promise of their ultimate convergence that’s most thrilling. In combination, the potential impact is unquantifiable. In other words, if you find these advancements inspiring, perhaps even shocking, just wait!
8“Translational Nanomedicine Program,” mayo.edu. 9“A Study to Evaluate Brain Computer Interface (BCI) and Electrocorticography (ECoG)- based Mapping of Sensori-motor and Language Modalities Utilizing Subdural Electrodes in the Human Brain,” mayo.edu.
Cloudy with a chance of immortality
What’s true of nearly all organizations today is urgently so for Mayo Clinic: their work is driven by data. And the cleaner, more accurate, accessible, reliable and integrated that data is, the faster they can achieve better health outcomes for their patients and ultimately, humanity.
Mayo Clinic cites its work related to the IBIS breast cancer risk scoring tool as just one example of how maintaining patient data in the cloud, versus on-premise repositories, directly impacts health outcomes. This web-based calculator estimates an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer over the next ten years, based on a variety of factors including age and family history. In combination with other assessments, it can provide critical healthcare and treatment guidance to both individuals and providers. But its effectiveness has historically been hampered by its heavy reliance on data inputs that are often scattered across multiple locations and records, which requires significant computing power to collect and synthesize.
Mayo Clinic has deployed a team to automate this tool using advanced Google AI tools that can extract the relevant up-to-the-minute data points from wherever they reside, so physicians can provide patients with their risk score bedside, in real time, and shift quickly to informed discussions and decision-making — a task that would be nearly impossible without the speed, agility and compute power of a cloud platform.
To get to an optimal data state, Mayo Clinic plans to migrate more than ten million anonymized patient records from its current data repository to the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) over the coming years. When complete, the organization anticipates a host of benefits including simplified training of machine learning models, and a significant shortening of the time from hypothesis to analysis to AI-based tool deployment—plus system maintenance and cybersecurity — all at a lower cost.10
A better, longer, healthier tomorrow—TODAY
Simply put, it is hard not to get excited about the improvements to both the length and quality of life we will experience in the coming decades. Whether or not the first person to live to 1,000 already walks among us is beside the point. Right now — today — we all have the potential to live longer, healthier, more productive and fulfilling lives than any generation before us. And just as they have for a century and a half, Mayo Clinic will be leading the charge into the once impossible.
10“Why Mayo Clinic Is Embracing the Cloud and What This Means for Clinicians and Researchers,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, September 29, 2021.