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The Making of Medicine

How Smartwatches Could Transform Cancer Care

New research from our Philip I. Chow, PhD, and colleagues demonstrates the potential of wearable and mobile devices such as smartwatches and smartphones to help doctors tailor cancer treatments to improve patient outcomes.

Chow and his collaborators, including co-principal investigator Dan Gioeli, PhD, were able to use the devices to predict patients' levels of the stress (and insomnia) hormone cortisol. This is notable because the scientists' lab research indicates that pancreatic cancer tumors grow faster in people with sleep disrupted by cortisol. So doctors may be able to use patients' mobile devices to help them keep their cortisol levels down and, in turn, slow the growth of their tumors.

This work is still early, but it's a super cool idea, and the researchers say their efforts demonstrate tremendous potential -- and not just for pancreatic cancer. So they've developed a plan to bring together experts in many areas, from psychology to engineering/data science to oncology, to capitalize on the untapped potential of these devices.

“Our vision is that this could one day lead to individualized cancer treatment that is tailored to the behavioral health profile of the individual patient,” Professor Chow said. “We know that patients are diverse in terms of their mental and physical health. Things like insomnia and distress could be important factors in how quickly a patient’s tumor grows and how resistant it is to cancer treatments. We’re trying to advance a more precise model of care that takes into account a patient’s health profile when making decisions about their cancer treatment in order to improve outcomes. It’s a bit outside-the-box thinking, and to our knowledge nobody else is doing it.”

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