We have entered the second decade of the twenty-first century. Today, affordable smart phones are widespread, computer game graphics look almost life-like, computer animation is almost indistinguishable from actual footage, remote-controlled drones patrol the skies, and Google maps provide street views of practically any city on Earth. What’s more, every year, the storage capacity of the average computer hard drive increases along with the computing power. We are living on the threshold of what could be a highly advanced future.
Along with the computer technology, medical technology is also advancing rapidly. Micro-computers, bionic limbs, artificial organs, nanotechnology, and lab-grown organs can potentially improve the quality of human life and change modern medicine. Such changes may take some time to be fully realized, but they are in their infancy today.
Micro-Computers and Nanotechnology
Micro-computers are a fascinating concept, and, until fairly recent years, they were only just a concept. But, today, the concept has become a reality. The phrase “worth your weight in salt” does not apply to micro-computers. One such computer that has actually been manufactured is smaller than a grain of salt (4). Professors Dennis Sylvester and David Blaauw, from the University of Michigan, have created a tiny, millimeter-long computer that contains a battery, a central processing unit (CPU), sensors, a tiny radio emitter, and electronics for powering the chip (4). The tiny computer is powered by light, requiring 10 hours of indoor lighting or 1.5 hours of sunlight exposure (4). The device is designed for being inserted into the eyeballs of glaucoma victims. It collects data with sensors and transmits the data through a radio wave (4). If there is too much internal pressure, the chip will transmit the data to medical professionals who will know what to do with the patient. Regarding this incredible technology, Sylvester said, “This is the first true millimeter-scale complete computing system. Our work is unique in the sense that we’re thinking about complete systems in which all the components are low-power and fit on the chip. We can collect data, store it and transmit it. The applications for systems of this size are endless” (5).
Another kind of micro-computer is in the process of being developed. Unlike Sylvester and Blaauw’s micro-computer, this one would use DNA for its electrical components. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a team of scientists has created the first DNA logic gates (3). Like their non-biological counterparts, the DNA logic gates represent one of two possible states, such as the zeros or ones of binary code (3). When one of two inputs was present at a DNA logic gate, the gate fluoresced, giving off light. And, when both of the two inputs or neither were present, the gate ceased fluorescing. This is similar to how a computer logic gate works. The DNA logic gates, when connected together and injected under the skin, may be able to form a biological-based computing system that can detect, diagnose, and treat common sicknesses or medical conditions (3).
Speaking of computers, a fairly new technology field has been gaining ground in recent years. Ever since Don Eigler of IBM spelled out “IBM” with 35 individual xenon atoms in 1989 (13), nanotechnology has been making many breakthroughs. Unlike most technology, which is easily visible to the unaided eye, nanotechnology deals with components much smaller than the head of a pin. Instead of being measured in meters, these components are measured in nanometers. To get a picture of how small this is, a billion nanometers can fit in one meter. Some examples of nanotechnology already in use would include carbon nanotubes (made out of billions of individual carbon atoms). These are currently being used to give extra strength to mountain bikes, golf club, and other high-end sporting equipment (7). Because they are composed entirely of carbon atoms, carbon nanotubes are used in water purification systems. Carbon, which is found in filters and diamonds, is good at attracting impurities and has a strong bonding arrangement.
Nanotechnology also has great promise for the future of medicine. One application of nanotechnology to the medical field is through the use of nanobots–microscopic machines made out of molecules–for fighting infection. Researchers at the Southwest UK Paediatric Burns Centre at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol have teamed up with scientists at the University of Bath to develop a “dressing” that kills pathogens (such as bacteria) by releasing antibiotics from “nanocapsules” (12). The harmful bacteria produce toxins which eat through the “nanocapsules”, releasing antibiotics (12). If this is perfected, the way doctors treat diseases may change. A patient may find that all he or she needs to do to recover from an illness is to simply swallow a pill: a pill filled with “nanocapsules”. Some other possibilities for nanotechnology in medicine might include nanobots for repairing damaged cells, nanobots for accelerating bone repair, and nanobots for killing cancer cells (14). Yes, you read it correctly, nanotechnology is thought to be a possible cure for cancer.
Nanotechnology also has another application in the developing area of medical technology called bionics. Imagine that you lose both your hands. Now, you are unable to work or do a lot of the things you enjoy. But, there is no need to worry. All you have to do is purchase an i-LIMB and have it installed. It sounds like it could be something made by Apple along the same lines of an iphone or ipod, but the i-LIMB is not another phone or portable computer. It is a prosthetic, robotic hand, created by Touch Bionics, that allows users to pick up a variety of objects, including glasses, playing cards, and suitcases. It works by detecting tiny electrical signals from arm muscles to control the movements of its individual, robotic fingers, wrist, and thumb (11). Bionic legs that work in a similar way to the i-LIMB are also on the market.
Besides prosthetic limbs, bionic technology offers replacement hearts, lungs, eyes, ears, and the potential for much more. Since we don’t have time to delve into all these unique and cutting-edge technologies, let’s take a look at the bionic eye. The Argus II, an amazing device created by Second Sight, a California-based company, allows the blind to see once again, albeit with limited vision. According to Robert Greenberg, president and CEO of Second Sight, “Patients can locate and recognize simple objects, see people in front of them, and follow their movement. They can find doors and windows, follow lines, and in the best cases read large print slowly” (6). This limited amount of sight comes with a cost: 115,000 U.S. dollars (6). It makes use of an array of electrical photoreceptors that stimulate retinal cells at the back of the eye, which then send a signal through the optic nerves to the brain. A wireless signal is transmitted from a camera built into a pair of glasses, worn by the patient, to a chip implanted near the retina (6). Besides having limited seeing capabilities, the Argus II only works for people who have a rare disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which only damages light-sensing photoreceptors and leaves the other retinal cells alone (6). The Argus II is currently only available in a number of clinics in the U.K., France, and Switzerland (6). If you live in the United States and you have retinitis pigmentosa, you’ll have to hop on a plane and have over 115,000 dollars at your disposal. For most, this is far too costly. Perhaps, as the technology is refined, it will become cheaper and more available to the general public.Pretend that you had a healthy eye, but your optic nerve was damaged. Is there any way to repair the damaged nerve? We have looked at bionic hands and mentioned bionic legs, but is there such thing as a bionic nerve? Surprisingly, the answer is “yes”. Scientists at the University of Manchester have converted adult fat-tissue stem cells from animals into nerve cells (2). Their goal is to make an artificial nerve to replace damaged nerves or nerve sections. Soon, they will be collecting adult stem cells and will try to convert them into nerve cells. They plan to make a “bionic” nerve by inserting the converted stem cells into a biodegradable polymer tube, which they will then surgically place into a break in a nerve (2). The growing nerve fiber will be able to pass through the tube and connect with the other end of the nerve, repairing the break (2). This “bionic” nerve could replace broken nerves in patients with cancer, in patients who have had tumor surgery, and in patients who have had severe injuries to their limbs (2).
Re-growing nerve cells is one thing, but re-growing a finger or a limb is another thing entirely. The technology for re-growing fingers and limbs seems like it would belong in a science-fiction novel. But scientists today think that such science-fiction-like ideas are possible with a new type of medicine called regenerative medicine. Though regenerative medicine is currently in its developmental stage, a few amazing breakthroughs have been made. In 2005, a Cincinnati hobby-store owner, Lee Spievack, cut off his finger tip when showing a customer a model airplane (1). His brother, Alan Spievack, who is a medical research scientist, gave him a special powder to sprinkle on his finger. After taking the powder, Lee Spievack was astonished to find that his fingertip was growing back. Four weeks later, it looked as good as new (1). The powder he took was made from a substance called extracellular matrix. It was developed by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine (1). The extracellular matrix powder is made from pig bladders (1), but it does not contain in pig cells (9). Instead, the matrix is composed of proteins, such as collagen (9), and connective tissue, which scientists believe stimulates the regeneration of tissue (1). The function of the extracellular matrix is to form a structure that helps cells generate any given body part (9). All animals have this special structure, as do developing babies (or fetuses). Two-year-olds have even been documented to re-grow missing finger tips with no medical help (9). This amazing framework for cell regeneration has many possibilities for the future of medicine. Some believe that the human body may be able to re-grow entire limbs due to the extracellular matrix. If that were possible, bionic prosthetics may be unnecessary.
Regenerative medicine is not limited to special powders for regeneration. Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University has grown muscle tissue, heart tissue, and a total of 18 different types of tissue in his laboratory (1). He’s even grown a mouse heart (1). Atala is quoted in a New York Times article as saying, “A salamander can grow back its leg. Why can’t a human do the same?” (10). One idea Atala has for replacing damaged organs is to surgically insert a biodegradable scaffolding, containing regenerative cells, into the body (10). The cells will theoretically grow to form the replacement organ and the scaffolding will eventually decompose. If this actually works, replacement organs will no longer need to be taken from organ donors when they’ve died (10). Perhaps, in the future, people could extend their lives by replacing their organs and damaged tissues with lab-grown counterparts, but right now that technology is still experimental.
Extending and improving the quality of life is the whole purpose of modern medicine. This article focused on some of the technologies being developed in three areas of modern medicine. We looked at the role played by micro-computers and nanotechnology and how nanobots could theoretically stop infections. In the area of bionics, we briefly examined some of the bionic technologies scientists are working on, such as the bionic hand. In the last section, we saw how regenerative medicine has allowed people to grow back their finger tips. Finally, we learned that organs and cell tissues are being grown in laboratories with the goal that they will be used to replace or repair natural organs. There seems to be a pattern in the goals set for the future of medicine technology. Scientists, technologists, and thinkers have envisioned a future where medical technology will provide people with a vehicle to live forever. Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist believes that sometime in the future, the process of aging will be stopped. He told a Reuters correspondent that there is “a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under…a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so” (8). He added, “And what I mean by decisive is the same sort of medical control that we have over most infectious diseases today” (8). If this prediction is true, we may find ourselves in a very different world from the one we know. Living for an eternity sounds wonderful, but, on our decaying planet, would it really be such a good thing? Aside from the good reasons for the development of medical technology, does it seem at all like some people may be trying to play God? I leave that thought for you to ponder.
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(2) “‘Bionic’ Nerve To Bring Damaged Limbs And Organs Back To Life.” sciencedaily.com. ScienceDaily LLC, 17 Oct. 2007. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(3) Dillow, Clay. “World’s First DNA-Based Logic Gates Could Lead to Injectable Bio-computers.” Popsci.com. Bonnier Corporation, 2 June 2010. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(4) Eaton, Kit. “Meet the Cutting Edge of Medicine: 1mm Injectable Computers.” FastCompany.com. Mansueto Ventures LLC, 22 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(5) Fahey, Mike. “The World’s Smallest Computer Wants To Be Inside Of You.” kotaku.com. kotaku.com, 23 Feb. 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.
(6) Graham-Rowe, Duncan. “A Bionic Eye Comes to Market.” technologyreview.com. MIT, 7 March 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.
(7) Kahn, Jennifer. “Nano’s Big Future.” NationalGeographic.com. National Geographic Society, June 2006. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(8) Kelland, Kate. “Who wants to live forever? Scientist sees aging cured.” Reuters.com. Thomas Reuters, 4 July 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.
(9) Layton, Julia. “Can humans regrow fingers?” health.howstuffworks.com. Discovery Communications, LLC, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.
(10) Parson, Ann. “A Tissue Engineer Sows Cells and Grows Organs.” nytimes.com. The New York Times Company, 11 July 2006. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(11) “Rebuilding humans using bionics.” Science.org.au. Australian Foundation for Science, n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(12) “Revolutionary Medical Dressing Uses Nanotechnology to Fight Infection.” sciencedaily.com. ScienceDaily LLC, 7 July. 2010. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(13) Shankland, Stephen. “IBM’s 35 atoms and the rise of nanotech.” news.cnet.com. CBS Interactive, 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.
(14) “25 Ways Nanotechnology is Revolutionizing Medicine.” FutureMedica. FutureMedica, 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.