Medical alerts from a sticker on your hand
For biomedical engineer Mark Kendall, an early endeavour to use rocket technology to improve vaccine delivery has flowered into a mission to revolutionize modern medicine by tailoring treatment precisely to an individual’s needs.
Kendall won his Rolex Award in 2012 for his work on the Nanopatch, a tiny adhesive sticker smaller than a fingernail that carries 20,000 invisibly small spicules coated with a dried vaccine powder, just long enough to penetrate the outer skin layer and reach key immune system cells beneath. With no refrigeration required for the vaccine, immunization can be delivered by anybody, anywhere.
The Rolex Award enabled the Australian scientist to test his highly effective and pain-free vaccination patch under rugged conditions in rural Papua New Guinea. The success of these field trials has led to backing from the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and several large pharmaceutical firms.
What Rolex allowed me to do was short-circuit the classic model of innovation
Today the patch is undergoing clinical trials for several diseases including pandemic influenza, measles and polio. “I'm pretty sure that journey would not have happened without the cataclysmic effect of the Rolex Award,” Kendall reflects. “What Rolex allowed me to do was short-circuit the classic model of innovation – where you develop and test your technology in the developed world first then, eventually, after many years it becomes cheap enough to use in the developing world.”
Thinking about patches, how cheap, convenient and easy they are to use, led Kendall to his next big breakthrough – a microwearable device. “A member of my family had had two heart attacks and I got to see the process that he went through. I was puzzled how rudimentary the whole thing seemed.” He began to wonder if it might be possible to detect a heart attack before it happened and stop the biggest killer on the planet in its tracks.
His WearOptimo-branded devices are unobtrusive triangles of layered plastic that adhere to the skin like a sticking plaster. Sandwiched within its layers is an array of cunning electronic sensors to detect what is going on in the wearer’s body – and report directly to the patient’s smartphone, their doctor or hospital. To date, three different microwearables devices are in development, with more to come.
When a cardiac patient begins to suffer damage to the muscle tissue of the heart, the dying cells release the chemical troponin into the bloodstream. The WearOptimo cardiac device detects this and monitors its increase, providing an early warning of the build-up to a potentially fatal event. This enables doctors to act in time to save a life.
For Kendall, developing the WearOptimo concept has yielded an important insight – that it is the patient’s ‘journey’ through disease to healing that often decides how quickly and well they recover. By constantly monitoring vital signs and indicators, his devices allow doctors to tailor treatment to suit each individual patient as they progress through the disease. This is leading to fresh applications for the device in cancer chemotherapy and in optimizing the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
Kendall attributes much of his success in medical innovation to working across the scientific and technical disciplines. “Good ideas can come from anywhere. Some of the best ideas come from people outside a given field,” he says.
A prolific inventor, his track record now includes 130 patents, $2 billion in medical value generated, seven major commercial licences and 40 students mentored.
The Rolex Award encouraged me to be even more enterprising, braver in what I undertook.
“The Rolex Award encouraged me to be even more enterprising, braver in what I undertook. It also brought me in contact with the most amazing people, including experts who look far beyond the horizon at the challenges that lie ahead.”
The Rolex Awards form part of the brand’s Perpetual Planet initiative, wherein Rolex seeks to preserve the Earth’s ecosystems and human well-being by pressing beyond humanity’s known boundaries in exploration, science and technology: embodying that spirit with his novel devices, Kendall is opening the way to a healthier humanity.