Emerging technologies have a key role to play in assessing our future disease risks, says Marzena Nieroda.
As an academic I have always been very interested in initiatives that promote wellbeing across all ages. In this regard a huge trend that is sweeping the healthcare industry, and one I have been specifically researching in recent years, is the proliferation of e-health and consumer-facing technology which allows us to manage, track and monitor our own health data.
Through this research I have begun working with the iHelp project, a European wide initiative which uses state of the art e-health platforms to define best practice for providing online healthcare support. This work is in collaboration with Professor Kenneth Muir and Dr Artitaya Lophatananon from the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health at The University of Manchester who have been looking at how positive changes to our lifestyles (e.g. healthy diet, exercise) can improve our epigenetic profiles, namely how our cells read our genes, and thus reduce our risk of future diseases.
The challenge we face is how to use these emerging technologies to communicate our own future disease risk and help people make healthier decisions and mitigate their risk.
You might ask why an academic from a business school has been involved with such work? Well, the answer is that I have been studying this work through the lens of a marketeer, namely someone who can advise on how to personalise such disease-based communications, how you can make individuals understand the messages they are receiving about own disease risks, and how they can be more proactive in their lifestyle choices.
The iHelp project also has particular appeal to me because my main body of research, working in particular with my AMBS colleague Professor Nikolay Mehandjiev, has specifically evolved around the personalisation of technology.
In this context there are two streams of research where AMBS expertise can add value to similar cross-disciplinary projects.
Firstly, it is our ability to translate innovative wellbeing interventions into lay person language, personalise the advice, and then enable the public to make a well-informed choice about their wellbeing.
Secondly, and most importantly when it comes to encouraging healthy behaviours, it is about using various personalisation approaches that can ‘hook’ people onto healthy behaviours and help them create healthy habits. In this respect, AMBS expertise in areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) is particularly useful as it can be used to develop and maintain ongoing relationships with users that can enhance user engagement, commit them to healthy behaviours, and support good habits.
Looking ahead I think there is huge potential in this work for scholars at AMBS given our ability to integrate personalisation, technology and the most recent developments in AI to support community engagement with cutting-edge interventions developed by researchers from other schools and faculties.
With regards to iHelp, I am specifically leading the work package that aims to evaluate the impact of its solutions on physical, human and societal factors. In the case of the Manchester pilot, the intervention will involve providing individuals with information about their biological age based on their epigenetic profile. The higher the biological age compared to actual age, the higher the risk of developing future diseases, and the more we can use this information to motivate behaviour change such as healthy diet and exercise.
The success of this work will be measured by assessing changes in individual attitudes towards intervention and wellbeing, as well as changes in behaviours, changes in biological age (we can biologically ‘get younger’ by making healthy choices), and happiness with one’s health and wellbeing.
On a broader society level, we will also look at changes in the risks of developing chronic diseases, changes in mortality rates, and the economic costs of managing chronic diseases and other lifestyle-related diseases.
Such analysis is of course particularly relevant too as we continue to deal with the impact of the pandemic. Indeed the most recent research points to the fact that lifestyles have an impact on the duration and severity of Covid-19 symptoms.
Because positive changes to our lifestyle are seen as a way to increase lifespan and mitigate risks of chronic diseases, it is likely that such changes could strengthen our immunity in general. So in terms of future research, it would be very interesting to look at how our biological age, based on our epigenetic profile, relates to health risks associated with Covid-19.