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Pioneering a healthier future

Local startups are advancing health care with innovative technology and invention

Technology has made our lives easier for years. Music, navigation, banking, communication—it’s all been streamlined. But now more than ever, technology is streamlining health care innovation, leading researchers to findings and treatments that have been kept out of reach—until now.

Improvements in computer programming and analysis are responsible for the biggest advancements in health care research. And many of these advancements are happening locally. Numerous companies in Greater Boston are bringing about a modern renaissance of scientific discovery and health care innovation—and are getting it done right here in New England.

The future of mental health treatment links brain and behavior

Scientists and researchers at BlackThorn Therapeutics are working to better understand brain function. They hope to discover more advanced treatments for the estimated 9.8 million adults in the U.S. suffering from neurobehavioral disorders like autism spectrum disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder.*

Treatments for these types of disorders have left pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies scratching their heads, leading to the number of companies developing medicines for mental health to drop from 313 in 2010 to 130 in 2016, according to PhRma. But BlackThorn is confident in its ability to pick up where many companies left off, especially now.

Dr. Bill Martin, chief scientific officer at BlackThorn Dr. Bill Martin, chief scientific officer at BlackThorn

“Five years ago, we may have known that to understand patients better, you needed to run a certain analysis, but that analysis would have taken six months,” said Dr. Bill Martin, chief scientific officer at BlackThorn. “Now, that same analysis takes six minutes.”

Founded in San Francisco, BlackThorn has recently opened a lab in the Cambridge Innovation Center. It was a move that, according to Dr. Martin, made perfect sense.

“Our interest in Cambridge came from viewing ourselves as emerging leaders in the field of applied neuroscience” he said. “We see tremendous value in having a presence in both U.S. epicenters of brain research, life science, and health care technology.”

blackthorn_lockup_rgb_m01BlackThorn’s research approach is based on identifying specific links between brain physiology and behavior. The team is working to prove that the right treatments can change behaviors associated with certain disorders by tuning the brain.

“Scientific advances have us moving away from common diagnoses, like major depressive disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder, and recognizing that many patients actually present a suite of symptoms that are, at their core, changes in brain physiology,” Martin said.

By being able to identify which type of depression or OCD an individual has based on specific brain patterns, BlackThorn aims to one day offer treatments better tailored to a patient’s individual symptoms.

The future of pain management relies on relaxation, not medication

The effects of stress present themselves as tense muscles and chronic pain throughout the head, neck, shoulders, and back. Over time, these effects compound, leaving many in distress about chronic pain.

cross_art3_chronicpainThis unending cycle often leads chronic-pain sufferers to visit their doctors for answers, where they’re prescribed drugs or scheduled for surgeries that might help relieve the discomfort, but don’t always combat the root cause.

BioTrak Health, a Boston-based startup founded in 2014, is working to change this.

The founders of BioTrak—one of whom treated chronic pain sufferers as an ear, nose, and throat doctor at Boulder Medical Center in Colorado—believe that when it comes to chronic pain, it’s better to address the stress that causes it, not the pain that follows.

“The key for pain sufferers is learning how to manage stress because most of their symptoms are caused by excess muscle tension,” said Adam Kirell, co-founder of BioTrak Health.

biotraklogoAccording to the CDC, over 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Oftentimes, this painful tension can be managed and treated with the right stress-management and relaxation techniques. To help better detect when these techniques are necessary, BioTrak is developing a product that alerts pain sufferers to changes in their muscle tension: the Halo.

Worn around the head, Halo is a digital therapeutic device that alerts wearers to any subtle changes in their muscle tension so they can practice relaxation training and better manage stress-induced pain.

“Our goal is to help people learn how to control their body, and then correct its course naturally,” said Kirell.

The Halo will come with an app that provides real-time relaxation training exercises developed by clinical specialists. Additionally, users can track their data over time to see for themselves how effective the training is in relieving chronic muscle tension.

“Similar to weight loss, if you see the scale going down, you’re going to be motivated by it,” said Kirell.

For Kirell and his team, having the opportunity to work, plan, and develop their product and stress management system in Boston has been invaluable.

“Boston truly is the center of the health care movement right now,” he said. “You have all the big players here. Everyone we’ve needed to talk to and all the resources we’ve needed are here—and growing.”

The future of health care innovation hinges on businesses using technology to further scientific discovery

Here are a few more local examples on the cutting edge:

Decibel Therapeutics
An estimated 50 million people in the U.S. are affected by some type of hearing impairment. Decibel, a startup based in Cambridge, is taking the recent discoveries made in hearing science and applying them to the creation of new treatments that will target the causes of multiple hearing disorders.

Voyager Therapeutics
With a passion for using groundbreaking science, Voyager is working in Cambridge to develop gene therapies that treat severe diseases of the central nervous system.

Changing the way we receive medications, PillPack is a pharmaceutical delivery service that brings the pharmacy to you by delivering pre-sorted, clearly labeled medications right to your door. PillPack has offices in Boston, New Hampshire, and Utah.

Researchers at this biopharmaceutical company are working to find treatments for rare, genetic metabolic diseases, specifically inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and colitis. By looking into the microbiology of the body, Synlogic is engineering synthetic probiotics that work to correct metabolic activities — all on their own.

Zillion Health
By making communication between doctor and patient easier, Zillion hopes to revolutionize the modern health care experience. Live video meetings, document sharing, progress trackers, and calendars are a few of the services offered to help better manage the healthcare experience.

*Source: NIMH

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.