Students propose ideas for leading longer and healthier lives

The BioInnovation Days dedicated to helping students implement innovative healthcare ideas took place in Tartu at the start of November. One of the winners proposed the use of a lab platform to assess health indicators.

The BioInnovation Days teach students practical methods for trying out their ideas and provide support from specialists as students work in multidisciplinary teams.

Elena Sügis from the winning team admits that not only do people want to live longer, they also want to lead healthier lives.  Unfortunately, monitoring one’s health indicators requires a range of medical analyses that take both time and money. “Our idea is to use a platform that maps epigenetic changes in the body so as to be able to simultaneously measure a large number of biomarkers that can be used to assess health indicators,” explained Sügis.

“Scientists have studied epigenetic modifications in the form of DNA methylation for over ten years. This has resulted in the discovery of patterns characteristic of various illnesses as well as tissues. Unlike the unalterable genetic sequence that we are born with, DNA methylation is dynamic and changes as we age, develop illnesses, smoke or even as we make healthier lifestyle changes. This means that we can use DNA methylation data to assess the changes that our bodies experience as a result of our lifestyle or any changes thereto. We intend to use DNA methylation data combined with machine-learning methods to predict and monitor the biological age of people and risks for various illnesses.”

The winning team included Elena Sügis, Liis Kolberg, Ahto Salumets, Kaido Lepik, Uku Raudvere and Ivan Kuzmin. “Our secret to success was a carefully considered action plan, a clear division of tasks and a motivated team,” said Sügis. “We are all members of the BIIT research group focusing on bioinformatics under the Institute of Computer Science at the University of Tartu.” She added further that the BioInnovation Days taught them how to outline their research problem more accurately and how to present their ideas with more clarity and persuasion. The design-thinking training was of particular use as it showed them how to get from identifying a problem to creating an actual product or service. Helpful feedback was received from mentors as well.

Medical student Niktia Umov said that he had been looking forward to the BioInnovation Days because even though numerous hackathons have been organised in Estonia, few of them have been focused on healthcare. “The event brought together distinguished healthcare mentors and enthusiastic and motivated students,” said Umov. “This resulted in an ideal environment for networking, sharing ideas and generating new ideas.”

For Umov, the value of the BioInnovation Days lies in its ability to bring together people who are interested in health and tech. “During the event,” said Umov, describing his experience, “participants were given the opportunity to consult with other attendees and mentors to define a problem to solve, validate whether this problem is indeed worth the time it takes to come up with a solution and then present their solution to the jury. The entire process allowed me to develop my teamwork skills and experience just how much can be achieved in a short period of time if you have a strong and motivated team open to new ideas. When I arrived at the innovation day, I had no idea what I would be dedicating my time to.

Within the first 30 minutes I was already engaged in an interesting conversation with the people sat at my table – there were medical students as well as students studying gene technology, there was even a representative from a start-up company. Different people who were all interested in the same thing – what could be done in healthcare to improve people’s health.”

“As I listened to the inspiring presentations and exchanged ideas with my new friends,” said Umov, “I started thinking that it would be great to improve the rehabilitation of people who have had a heart attack. I shared my idea with the people in the room and within an hour we had a team of five people who were interested in the subject and so we started working on it. During the innovation day we spoke to medical staff from the department of cardiology and patients who had experienced a heart attack to connect with them and gain a better understanding of what we should be working on and what is lacking in the area.” “At the end of the second day we presented our solution to the jury and other participants,” said Umov about the solution he helped create at the hackathon. “Our solution aimed to boost the role people themselves play in their rehabilitation process. It involved the assembly of all available information on rehabilitation (personal treatment and training plats, risk factors and state provided rehabilitation services) on one digital platform, offering tailored recommendations to people as they undergo rehabilitation.”

Umov felt it is laudable to encourage students to take up innovation at an early stage.

Piret Hirv, Manager of the Connected Health Cluster, admitted that her position as a mentor is very privileged as it allows her to see the birth of innovative ideas. “It is very interesting to see how ideas form into concepts and then into solutions that might someday change the healthcare system,” she said.

She continued by saying “Solutions that can be used to improve healthcare are just what the Connected Health Cluster is expecting, as it supports companies in the development stage as well as further down the line when it is time to look for export markets.”

The BioInnovation Days are an annual event designed to advance healthcare and bioinnovation in general, where students can validate, develop and present their health-related (e.g. healthcare, active ageing, healthy food and biosustainability) ideas and come up with solutions to real health-related challenges.

The innovation event is organised with the support of the EU-funded pan-European EIT Health network comprising 140 leading medical technology and pharmaceutical companies, research facilities and universities.

The winning teams from each country will be asked to attend the final event in Paris on 1 December where they will be given advice on how to take their ideas to the next level.