Researchers to explore the use of smartwatches to tailor treatment of cancer

07-02-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

Researchers from Manchester, including the university and several NHS trusts, are running trials on the use of smartwatches to help improve the survivability of patients by tailoring treatments. What challenges does cancer present, what are the researchers focusing on, and could it be used to improve treatment in the future?

What challenges does cancer present?

Of all diseases known to man, it can be argued that cancer is one of the worse. It can affect people of all ages, it can affect every single cell type in the body, it can form in inoperable places, and it can even spread from one side of the body to another. But by and large, the worse fact behind cancer is that there is no single treatment that can cure all cancers, nor even cure one type of cancer, and this is due to the fact that no two cancers are alike. In fact, cancer in one patient will be different to cancer in another patient even if the cancers are both the same type (e.g. lung cancer).

This inability to create a single medication for a type of cancer means that every single case of cancer needs to be studied and treated uniquely. One treatment type, called chemotherapy, targets cells that are in the process of dividing, and because cancerous cells multiply rapidly, they are often the target of radioactive medicine. However, other cells in the body that rapidly multiple (hair, nails etc.) can degrade due to the treatment, and even then, the treatment may not work.

Another cancer treatment that can be used is targeted radiation, which involves a photon beam of high energy (x-ray and beyond) fired at cancerous cells. The intense radiation rips apart such cells and can destroy their replication ability. However, this type of treatment can cause damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

For these reasons, it is best to take preventative measures with cancer and catch it before it spreads.

Researchers to use smartwatches for improved cancer treatments

When it comes to the effectiveness of a treatment, many environmental factors can come into play, including body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and diet. Trying to correlate these bio signs with treatment effectiveness can be extremely difficult due to the many variables involved.

However, researchers from Manchester University and several NHS Trust Foundations are running trials of wearable smartwatches for patients to see if recorded data can be used to better treat individual cancer patients. Furthermore, patients will also wear smart rings as well as a chest-worn device that has been called the Isansys system.

The Enhanced Monitoring for Better Recovery and Cancer Experience, dubbed EMBRaCE, will collect data from blood, lung, and colorectal cancer patients and utilise AI to make sense of the data. From there, predictive algorithms will be able to detect subtle changes in patients and may even be able to provide doctors with guidance on treatment. For example, patients who experience cold weather more may require different types of chemotherapy, while those with glucose imbalances may be better off with targeted radiation.

Furthermore, monitoring devices that operate 24/7 give medical professionals unique insight into real-time data and may be able to spot severe signs of illness within minutes of showing symptoms. This could then help drive patients away from treatments that may cause more harm than good.

"This trial will assess if the latest wearable technology has a role in cancer care. It will help us to identify ways that clinical staff can individualise treatment before, during, and after therapy. We will find out if 24/7 data from these wearable sensors can be used to support patient recovery and provide accurate measurement outside the clinic. It could even support the development of new cancer treatments by developing a digital platform for clinical trials in cancer involving wearable devices or fitness trackers."

Dr Michael Merchant, Senior Lecturer in Proton Therapy Physics University of Manchester

How does this use of smart wearables and AI reveal the future of medicine?

AI is an unbelievably powerful tool thanks to its ability to learn from extensive datasets combined with its ability to make links between data sets that would otherwise be thought unrelated. While AI has many applications, its use in medicine will cause a transformation that no other industry has seen.

One of the biggest hurdles in the field of medicine is access to quick and accurate healthcare. For example, patients in the UK who see a specialist via the NHS must first go through a local GP. It is not unheard of for GPs to dismiss symptoms, whether it is from a lack of sympathy, the belief that the individual is a hypochondriac, or a lack of drive to find the root cause of a symptom. In fact, the recent COVID pandemic has seen many millions of check-ups being cancelled or outright not available to stop the spread of COVID. This has directly caused increased rates of undiagnosed diseases, including cancer.

If the GP system in the NHS could be replaced with an AI for diagnostic purposes, anyone who requires access to healthcare would be able to do so from the comfort of their own home. The inherent biases in human doctors would be eliminated. If the data presented to the AI called for specialists, then it would do so while not discriminating.

Thus, we see that the future of healthcare could be oriented around smart wearables to track health signs and AI to make sense of that data. If problems are found, AI diagnostic systems could then point patients in the right direction while treatment AI systems can confirm that treatments are working as expected.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.