Astounding innovations in medical technology are constantly being researched and developed.
From machine learning AI that can predict patient lifespan to devices that can turn your skin cells into any organ — behind laboratory doors lie a breadth of ideas which can expand the limits of medicine and redefine public health strategy.
However, unless your hobbies consist of scrawling through scientific journals and technology reviews, it’s pretty easy to miss out on the most promising tech from the health sciences.
So here’s a list of some of the best recent breakthrough tech that could change the way we think about medicine and health.
1. A regenerative nanodevice that "heals in one touch."
Picture going to the hospital after a horrific accident where you’re at risk of losing your leg. You go the emergency room in full panic and the doctor applies a small chip on your skin, which then converts your skininto the necessary cells to heal and save that leg.
Thanks to the researchers at the Ohio State University, a piece of nanotech called Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT) means that this could be lifted from the realms of science fiction and dropped straight into clinical reality.
The device is composed of two parts: first is the nanotech chip — no larger than a sim card — which is designed to deliver biological instructions to your skin cells for reprogramming.
The second part is the biological instruction themselves, the "cargo" which tells your skin cells what to turn into.
The cargo is delivered by a small zap of electricity, barely perceptible to human senses.
The study used mice and pigs as experiment subjects, where the researchers actually saved a badly injured leg of a mouse by converting its skin cells to restore blood flow.
TNT was also used to create nerve cells to help mice recover from stroke-induced brain damage.
Plans for clinical trials in human application start next year, so look out for the announcement when we can repair failing organs with nanotransfected skin cells.
2. A nanoparticle-powered microneedle patch to melt fat.
In addition to regenerative medicine, nanotech is also being researched as treatment for obesity and diabetes — via a "microneedle patch" that can facilitate targeted fat burning through drug loaded nanoparticles.
Humans store fats as either white fats or brown fats. White fat is geared for long term energy, whereas brown fats burn far easier. However, by the time we reach adulthood, most fat is kept as white fats.
A drug that turns fats from white to brown has long been sought — but the problem is that these kinds of drugs also tend to have side effects for other body parts — which means they can’t be ingested as a pill or injected through conventional methods.
Developed by researchers from the Columbia University Medical Centre, the microneedle patch offers a controlled drug delivery so only the desired areas are affected.
Once applied to the skin, the patch releases a "fat-browning" drug encapsulated in nanoparticles. Because these particles slowly dissolve when they come into contact with the body, the drug only impacts the fat directly under the skin.
The research, published in ACS Nano, used obese mice as test subjects. After a week of treatment, they found a 20% fat reduction in the targeted areas — as well as lowered blood glucose levels (implying an application in diabetes treatment).
3. A tech that lets you compose music with your mind.
Have you ever read The Diving Bell and The Butterfly? If you haven’t, it’s about a magazine editor who becomes completely paralyzed with the exception of one eyelid, and he wrote a whole book by communicating through blinking.
Now imagine if you could write a book, or compose an entire symphony using only the power of your mind.
Using a technology called brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, researchers from the Graz University of Technology have done just that.
Called the “Brain Composer” by its creators, the application allows anyone to compose music just by thinking about it.
BCIs are a branch of science that looks to replace and enhance everyday bodily functions with programs controlled by brainwaves.
Essentially, they are the applications that read brainwaves and allow users to control external devices. They can replace or enhance a host of everyday functions — allowing the less-abled to do everything from writing a letter (or a book) to controlling exoskeletons and prosthetics.
The study took 18 test subjects, who were hooked up to a brainwave measuring cap connected to a BCI and music composition software. A number of notes and symbols flashed before them on a screen, and they concentrated on the notes that they wanted. Because your brainwaves alter slightly when you focus, BCIs detect this change and translate them into the desired action. In this case, it was the particular chord or symbol that the subjects wanted to write down.
We could soon be in an era where even complete paralysis can be "treated" by hooking up patients up to BCIs that allow them to write tunes, walk with an exoskeleton and live in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
4. A cancer detecting pen.
A major obstacle in cancer surgery has to do with the difficulties in distinguishing healthy tissue from the cancerous. Remove too little, and it increases the chances of recurrence; remove too much, and it can have adverse consequences for biological function.
From scientists from the University of Texas at Austin comes a pen shaped device, so aptly named the MasSpec Pen, which can distinguish cancerous tissues during surgery in a staggering 10 seconds, and has shown a 96% accuracy rate in trials thus far.
Currently, the most advanced method of cancer detection in surgery is called Frozen Section Analysis, which can take around 30 minutes or more to process samples. It can also be unreliable in up to 10-20% of cases for cancers which are challenging to detect when frozen.
The MasSpec Pen works by comparing certain molecules, called metabolites, which are produced by tissue cells. Because the metabolites produced by cancerous cells are distinct from healthy ones, the pen can return a result as either "normal" or "cancer."
When pressed against the patient’s tissue, the plastic tip of the pen releases a drop of water, which absorbs thousands of metabolites and runs them through a mass spectrometer (which identifies the molecular fingerprint of the tissues under examination).
The study analyzed tissues taken from 253 cancer patients, and the device is expected to be tested in live surgeries starting next year. If applied on a wide scale, this would not only improve the speed of tissue analysis by some 150 fold, it would also be vastly beneficial to the accuracy and speed of cancer surgeries.
5. Machine learning AI to predict your lifespan.
If you could find out how long you have left to live, would you? With developments in artificial intelligence, a computer might soon be able to answer that question just by scanning your internal organs.
Published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of Adelaide have been using artificial intelligence to predict patient lifespans through analyzing medical imagery.
The researchers used images of 48 patients’ chests and fed them into a "deep learning" algorithm which made predictions about which of patients would die within five years. The results were accurate 69% of the time, which is similar to the predictions made by practitioners.
Deep learning is a machine learning technique, where an algorithm "learns" to recognize useful patterns in a given set of data, then make observations and predictions. In this case, the algorithm "learned" the complexities of disease manifestation and assessed patient health by looking at organ imaging — but it is being explored in different areas of healthcare, as well.
From here, the AI is only going to get more accurate: the more data you feed into the algorithm, the more samples it has to discover insights and information otherwise invisible to the human mind. Which is why, for the next stage of research, the scientists are going to feed tens of thousands of images into the AI for analysis. It’ll still take some time before this sort of medical AI can be applied on a wide clinical basis, but with already promising results — it won’t be too long before computers can tell you how long you have a live at a moment’s glance.