Healthcare, medicine & pharmaceuticals

The first truly bionic human

Many scientific breakthroughs begin life as science fiction, and the bionic human is no exception. Many aspects of the original Six Billion Dollar Man (TV) are now achievable, thanks to some incredible developments with sensors, electrodes, mind control, and genetics. People who are blind, deaf, use prosthetics, or have genetic problems, can potentially be helped by this technology; people who are in good shape, but are high-achievers, can be enhanced by it.

The bionic eye, for example, works using a camera on someone’s glasses to capture images that are processed by a microchip. This transmits information to a retinal implant that then stimulates the optic nerve, creating some kind of vision. It could even be used for vision beyond normal. The bionic ear uses an external microphone that captures sound and sends it to an implant that stimulates the auditory nerve. It could also be used for hearing things most of us can’t naturally hear.

While the ability to enhance performance is already well understood, and often misused, it will become possible to use retroviruses that alter genes in the embryo or the adult, to enhance strength, stamina, metabolic rate and even mood. Use of an experimental implant, called BrainGate, has already enabled someone who is quadriplegic to control a computer or clench a robotic hand, just by thinking about it. Already, the so-called Luke arm (made by DEKA in the US), offers a fully articulated hand that can pick up and hold virtually anything that a normal hand can. The next step is to create communication between the brain and the prosthetic device so that the prosthetic limb is able to feel, via synthetic skin.

It seems to be human is to want to improve on what we already have. And with so much pressure on people to be healthy, live long, and achieve while they’re doing it, it seems likely that further forms of bionics will keep being developed. It will upset those who believe this is playing God, but perhaps if they lost a limb, they might change their minds.

Ref: Popular Science, March 2009, The Six Billion Dollar Man. Tim Dean.
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Search words: prosthetics, bionic hearing, vision, retroviruses, mind control, genetic enhancement, S. Austin.
Trend tags: Bionics


A pill with location, location, location

Imagine a pill that goes exactly where it is needed in your body, and then tells your doctor what is happening. Called the iPill, this is already a prototype, thanks to Philips Research in the Netherlands. The advantages of localised drug delivery are that less of the drug is needed, and this creates fewer side effects. If there is an adverse reaction, the drug, which is two thirds microprocessor, can let the doctor know. It may one day be used to treat gastro-intestinal disorders, such as colitis or Crohn’s disease.

The iPill can detect acidity and has a small pump, powered by a battery, which can release the medication all at once or in short bursts. Scientists are using an aquarium as a watery medium to test its action. A British company in this market, Pharmaceutical Profiles, is also testing capsules filled with drugs, an antenna, and electronics, designed to help people with gastro-intestinal problems. This pill is a real estate agent’s dream, perhaps, with location, location, location.

Ref: The New York Times (US), 1 February 2009, ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ Revisited: The Pill That Navigates. Eisenberg, A.
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Search words: pill, navigation, iPill, localised drug delivery, GIT.
Trend tags: location aware devices

The DNA testing controversy

We used to go to fortune-tellers for a glimpse into the future; now we can go to DNA testers to see what illnesses we might get. This practice is still controversial within the medical community and, although illegal in Britain to use DNA testing for cases of infidelity or paternity, use of it for these purposes has probably tarnished its reputation. A Financial Times journalist used three different DNA testers and found similarities in diagnosis, which he saw as providing some kind of credibility and robustness to the technique. The companies involved also advised him on what to do to improve his chances of not developing these diseases. This seems to be the most useful part of the exercise and might ultimately save the health system huge amounts of money.

Use of testing to check out your partner’s behaviour without his consent is illegal, but tests are sold online and conducted outside Britain. Obtaining DNA is easy, if you have access to chewing gum or cigarettes for saliva, blood stains on a razor, or hair from a hairbrush. Checking for paternity is even more problematic because it can potentially affect the child one day. But people continue to use this practice, as shown by complaints, none upheld, about alleged breaches of the law in June and September 2008. Perhaps the complainants wanted to protect their own dishonesty, rather than contribute to keeping the legal system honest.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 7 February 2009, The interpretation of genes. Jonathan Margolis.
New Scientist (UK), 31 January 2009, Could your DNA betray you? Peter Aldhous.
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Search words: genetic-testing, DNA swab, privacy, 23andMe, deCODEme, Genetic Health, Alzheimer’s, infidelity, paternity, illegal.
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Innovations for 2009

Which innovation excites you the most in 2009? The ability to inject liquid bone that hardens within 15 minutes into the body, research to prevent obesity already found in preschoolers, ability to buy drugs over the counter instead of by prescription, or going under for an 8-hr operation that gives you a new body shape? All are on their way to you. Conversely, you may be excited by targeted diagnosis of which type of asthma you have, the ability to sniff cancer on our breath, or even fluorescent make-up.

The bad news is that projected use of stem cells to protect hair follicles will not treat baldness, men are four times more likely than women to suffer from depression if they lose their jobs this year, and the cacao tree (treasured source of our chocolate cravings) is suffering from disease and drought. It could be a good year for addicts to chocolate and otherwise, as scientists try to unlock the neuroscience of cravings.

Ref: The Times (UK), 27 December 2008, 2009: The hot trends. Kate Wighton.
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Search words: health, beauty, nutrition, science, diagnosis, records, feelings, stem cells, virtual hair, obesity, animal welfare, addiction, artificial carers.
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Small is beautiful in drug delivery

Is nanotech is the next big thing in treating cancer and other diseases? For scientists, taking a systemic approach to the body, rather than focusing on only one diseased part is very much the shape of things to come. The hub of this change is nanotech, or extremely tiny technologies, for use in diagnosis and treatment. (A nanometer is a billionth of a metre, which tells you just how small.)

Nanoscale treatments can cheaply measure and manipulate molecules and, because they are hypertargeted, leave healthy tissue alone. Continued research into cancer has found that two people, with identical cancers and treatments, respond in very different ways. Through molecular analysis, it is possible to identify different kinds of cancer where it used to be seen as one. Already, a prototype chip can measure a panel of cancer-related proteins in a drop of blood in 10 minutes, costing only 5-10 cents a protein. This offers better possibilities for early treatment.

Nanotech materials, which are the same size as antibodies and viruses, can be used for sensing, imaging, tissue targeting, and delivery. It means that the patient needs considerably less of the drug required to treat them. For example, IT-101 is an experimental chemotherapy drug inside a nanoparticle, which circulates for 40 hours in the bloodstream and accumulates in tumours. As the drug releases, the rest of the nanoparticle falls apart and leaves the body through the kidneys.

Such a huge step forward in cancer treatment offers patients in the next 10 years more cause for hope. But it also goes beyond cancer to a different way of looking at the body, and the potential for everyone to live better and live longer. It signals a change in the way medicine works to the four “P”s: predictive, preventative, personalised, and participative. In simple terms, this means that you have more control over your own current and future health.

Ref: Scientific American (US), February 2009, Nanomedicine targets cancer. James R Heath et al.
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Search words: systems medicine, nanotech, cancer research, DNA, detection, drug delivery, dosage, preventive medicine, personalised medicine.
Trend tags: Nanotechnology