Though we haven't quite reached the point of flying cars and hover boards, the 21st century seems to be producing some sweet, space-aged technology so far. In just the last few years, we shrank computers to fit into our pockets, equipped them with the Internet, and now call them smartphones. We’ve built completely gas-free cars, and we’ve even got driverless cars now.
And though these inventions have been world-changing, they are just the tip of the iceberg in what's to come. With all we've learned about microchips, nanotechnology and robotics over the past two decades, it's only a matter time before we see major changes to the way we live-- even how long we live.
That's right, the same budding technology that builds modern cars and computers is being implemented in the world of medicine, with results straight out of a science fiction book. Innovations such as 3-D printers, lab-grown organs, cancer-fighting "nanosubmarines", and highly-functional robotic limbs are right around the corner, and we've got the inside scoop on who's bringing these groundbreaking ideas to life.
Nanotechnology is one of those words we often find in comic books and science fiction novels. It basically means super-small technology, and is usually implanted in some sort of superhuman to make his or her body function better. In real life, however, scientists have been more concerned with curing diseases than creating superheroes, which is exactly what is happening at the University of Cincinnati.
A team of international researchers have come together to create a nano carrier, a super pill of sorts, that can detect, diagnose and deliver drugs to cancer cells. This "nano-submarine" can carry a variety of cancer-fighting materials on its double-sided surface and within its porous interior, delivering pinpoint-targeted treatment to these sick cells and avoiding the harsh side effects of current chemotherapy treatments. This is bigger than just comfort for cancer patients: this is a way to keep the rest of the body strong while only the cancer cells are destroyed, which increase the chances of survival by leaps and bounds.
It even carries cancer-specific detection particles and biomarkers to sites within the body, promising earlier detection and diagnosis than is possible with today's methods and tools. It can then mark those sites with attached fluorescent materials to illuminate specific cancer cells, making them easier to locate for drug delivery or surgery! I guess the old cliché is true: big things really do come in small packages.
Custom-Built Body Parts
If tiny micro-machines aren't blowing your mind, this one might. With the fairly recent invention of 3-D printers, mixed with cutting-edge cloning technology, organ and tissue replacements are not only being grown, they're being e-mailed. Scientists from several different universities have been modifying these 3-D printers to build (and grow) custom body parts and organs. For real.
At first, the technology centered around rebuilding bone structures for people with traumatic injuries. Researchers at Washington State University have designed custom bones by printing out a scaffold with a ceramic powder (because bones are 70% ceramic), using the same 3-D printers that make metal parts for electric motors. This scaffold is then baked at 2,000º F for 120 minutes, and incubates in gel made up of human bone cells. The finished product is literally a new bone, made from the patient’s own cells.
What's even more interesting is bones are only the starting point. Biomedical engineers at Wake Forest Institute for Regenitive Medicine have built a 3-D printer that can make a kidney! The 3-D "bio-printer" deposits multiple types of kidney cells, which are taken from the patient, into a biodegradable scaffold. This scaffold and cells incubate for a while, then are transplanted back into the patient-- where the kidney finishes growing as the harmless shell disintegrates.
Prosthetics and robotics have come a long way in just the past ten years to a mind-blowing degree. Something that was once reserved for futurist space stories is quickly becoming a reality, as Swedish scientists at Chalmers University of Technology have created the most versatile robotic arm to date. Unlike other models, this prosthetic limb has a bone-anchored, thought-controlled implant system that offers almost seamless control.
With a titanium receptacle placed into the bone, which fuses with the bone over time, and an electrode-implanted bio-muscular interface-- there's a mouthful-- this robotic arm can not only read signals sent by the brain, it can also send them back! This is done through a phenomenon called "osseoperception", or bone perception, which causes a person to pick up signals through vibrations in the bones. Long story short, this is the closest thing to an actual limb replacement that we've ever come!
So don't be bummed that we aren't flying around in our cars just yet. It will come around soon enough. Until then we can enjoy the fact that scientists want everyone to live longer, healthier lives, and are quickly developing the means to make that happen.