Should this AI-driven technology prove viable in clinical settings, it could contribute to easing the shortage of qualitied phlebotomists for medical laboratories worldwide
Could phlebotomists one day be out of a job? If European medical technology company Vitestro has its way, that could someday become a reality in European hospitals and in clinical laboratories worldwide. Headquartered in the Netherlands, the company has raised EUR 12.7 million ($14,057,947.50 US) in Series A financing to bring to market “the world’s first autonomous blood drawing device,” BioWorld Med Tech reported.
According to Vitestro’s website, the “device combines AI-based, ultrasound-guided 3D reconstruction with robotic needle insertion, ensuring accurate and secure blood collection. The procedure is performed fully automatically, from tourniquet to bandage application.”
This is another example of how artificial intelligence companies are finding opportunities in staffing shortages the healthcare industry is experiencing globally. In this case, the novel technology could help address the lack of qualified phlebotomists. And clinical laboratories around the world could become the proving grounds for new AI-driven devices that end up replacing human healthcare workers.
“This financing round marks a new phase of growth for Vitestro which brings the company closer to its mission of improving the venipuncture procedure for hundreds of millions of patients per year,” said Vitestro CEO and co-founder Toon Overbeeke (above), in a press release. “We look forward to growing the business and transforming patient care with Sonder Capital, leveraging their expertise in successfully commercializing medical robotic technologies.” If proven viable, clinical laboratories around the world suffering from shortages of phlebotomists could benefit from AI-driven autonomous blood draw stations. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)
Next Evolution for Clinical Laboratories
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 14 billion clinical laboratory tests ordered annually in the US and 70% of medical decisions depend on laboratory results. One of the more common clinical laboratory procedures—venous blood draws—is pivotal in clinical diagnostics, but a worldwide shortage of skilled phlebotomists is having an impact on this critical testing method.
With the announcement of its completion of a EUR 12.7-million Series A financing round to bring the “world’s first” autonomous blood draw device to market, Vitestro seems poised to impact both the shortage and the job prospects of existing phlebotomists. This financing round was led by San Carlos, California-based Sonder Capital and included investors with experience in the clinical laboratory and medical technology industries.
“Automating this ubiquitous procedure is the next evolution for clinical laboratories, allowing them to improve quality of care for patients while building a more sustainable operation,” stated Andy McGibbon, Managing Partner at Sonder Capital in a March press release.
According to Investopedia, Series A financing refers to “an investment in a privately-held start-up company after it has shown progress in building its business model and demonstrates the potential to grow and generate revenue. It often refers to the first round of venture money a firm raises after seed and angel investors.”
Vitestro says it will utilize the capital from this financing round to accelerate production development, prepare market authorization in the European Union, and initiate production.
Vitestro’s autonomous blood drawing device prototype (above) has been tested on more than 1,000 volunteers and patients. Vitestro plans to continue its studies on the device this year and anticipates entering the European market with the device sometime in 2024. Development of this technology is something that phlebotomists and clinical laboratory managers will want to track. (Photo copyright: Vitestro.)
Coming to a Clinical Laboratory Near You
“Medical robotics will make optimal outcomes available to everyone. I strongly believe Vitestro will set the world standard in autonomous blood drawing,” said Fred Moll, MD, Managing Partner of Sonder Capital in the press release. Moll, who has been heralded as the “father of robotic surgery,” was also appointed as a non-executive board member of Vitestro. Moll co-founded Intuitive Surgical, Inc., Hansen Medical, Restoration Robotics, and Auris Health (acquired by Ethicon, a Johnson and Johnson company).
On April 12, Vitestro announced that leading Dutch clinical laboratory OLVG Lab will be the first healthcare provider to begin using their blood-drawing device. A number of hospitals, clinical laboratories, and blood drawing departments are preparing to use the device and OLVG Lab plans to have the system fully operational by late next year, according to a press release. OLVG lab provides laboratory services to hospitals, clinics, and care providers in the greater Amsterdam area.
“Robotization has become an important topic in diagnostics. Vitestro’s technology will improve the standardization and optimization of the sampling procedure. And it helps solve staff shortages in our blood drawing department,” said Anja Leyte, director of OLVG Lab, in the press release. “But more importantly, the patients are also very positive. Our staff are really enthusiastic as well and can’t wait to start using this breakthrough technology in our healthcare.”
Vitestro’s device is still in the testing phase but could prove to be very beneficial to clinical laboratories and help alleviate the shortage of trained phlebotomists. An automated blood draw machine might also improve the consistency of the blood draw experience for both patients and healthcare professionals.
Silicon Valley startup is using gene sequencing to identify in the bloodstream free-floating genetic material shed by tumors
There has been plenty of excitement about the new diagnostic technologies designed to identify circulating tumor cells in blood samples. Now, a well-funded Silicon Valley startup has developed a blood test that it says holds promise for detecting early-stage lung and other cancers.
Though experimental, the screening test—which uses gene sequencing to identify in the bloodstream cancer-signaling genetic material shed by tumors—would be a boon for clinical laboratories and health networks. It also could play a role in advancing precision medicine treatments and drug therapies.
“There is an unmet need globally for early-detection tests for lung cancer that can be easily implemented by healthcare systems,” lead study author Geoffrey Oxnard, MD (above), said in the Dana-Farber news release. “These are promising early results and the next steps are to further optimize the assays and validate the results in a larger group of people.” (Photo copyright: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.)
According to the news release, researchers in this initial analysis explored the ability of three different prototype sequencing assays, each with 98% specificity, to detect lung cancer in blood samples:
“The initial results showed that all three assays could detect lung cancer with a low rate of false positives (in which a test indicates a person has cancer when there is no cancer),” the Dana-Farber news release noted.
Identifying Disease Risk Before Symptoms Appear
Screening tests help identify individuals who are not displaying disease symptoms but may be at high risk for developing a disease. GRAIL’s goal is to develop a test with a specificity of 99% or higher. This means no more than one out of 100 people would receive a false-positive.
Otis Brawley, MD, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer at the American Cancer Society, points out that specificity is important when developing a population-based screening test that ultimately would be given to large portions of the general public based on age, medical history, or other factors.
“I am much more concerned about specificity than sensitivity [true positive rate], and [GRAIL] exhibited extremely high specificity,” Brawley told Forbes. “You don’t want a lot of false alarms.”
Some cancer experts have a wait-and-see reaction to GRAIL’s initial results, due in part to the small sample size included in the sub-study. Benjamin Davies, MD, Associate Professor of Urology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and an expert on prostate cancer screening, told Forbes the early data was “compelling,” but the number of patients in the study was too small to generate excitement.
Oxnard, however, believes the initial results validate the promise of GRAIL’s blood screening test project.
“I was a skeptic two years ago,” Oxnard, a GRAIL consultant, told Forbes. “I think these data need to put a lot of the skepticism to rest. It can be done. This is proof you can find cancer in the blood, you can find advanced cancer, therefore this has legs. This has a real future. It’s going to be many steps down the line, but this deserves further investigation and should move forward.”
Researchers next plan to verify the initial results in an independent group of 1,000 CCGA participants as part of the same sub-study. They then will attempt to optimize the assays before validating them in a larger data set from CCGA, the Dana-Farber news release explained.
Illumina, a sequencing-technology developer, formed GRAIL in 2016, with participating investments from Bill Gates, Bezos Expeditions and Sutter Hill Ventures. Since then, GRAIL has attracted other high-flying investors, including Amazon, Merck, Johnson and Johnson, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Forbes notes that as of 2018 GRAIL has raised $1.6 billion in venture capital and has a $3.2 billion valuation, according to private market data firm Pitchbook. Last year, GRAIL merged with Hong Kong-based Cirina Ltd., a privately held company also focused on the early detection of cancer.
While GRAIL’s projects hold promise, anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratories may be wise to temper their enthusiasm until more research is done.
“We all would like to dream that someday you’d be able to diagnose cancer with a blood test,” Eric Topol, MD, Executive Vice President and Professor of Molecular Medicine at Scripps Research, told Forbes. Topol says he’s “encouraged” by GRAIL’s methodical approach, but warns: “We’re at the earliest stage of that.”
That’s according to Debra Harrsch, President-elect of the Diagnostics Marketing Association (DxMA), a self-funded organization devoted to helping diagnostic marketing professionals stay abreast of industry trends and effectively navigate the changing legal, regulatory, and technology landscape.
If this medical imaging collaborative develops a way to use the unstructured data in radiology images and anatomic pathology reports, it could create a new revenue stream for pathologists
Unstructured data has been regularly recognized as one Achilles heel for the anatomic pathology profession. It means invaluable information about the cancers and other diseases diagnosed by surgical pathologists are “locked up,” making it difficult for this information to be accessed in efforts to advance population health management (PHM) or conduct clinical studies.
Similarly, medical imaging has an essential role in the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. And, like most anatomic pathology reports, medical imaging also is considered to be “unstructured” by data experts because it is not easily accessible by computers, reported Fortune magazine.
Unstructured Data in Anatomic Pathology and Radiology
Now one of the world’s largest information technology companies wants to tackle the challenge of unstructured data in radiology images. IBM (NYSE: IBM) Watson Health launched a global initiative involving 16 health systems, radiology providers, and imaging technology companies.
The Watson Health medical imaging collaborative is working to apply cognitive computing of radiology images to clinical practice. IBM aims to transform how physicians use radiology images to diagnose and monitor patients. (more…)