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MEMS and nanotechnology are revolutionizing medicine; here's a peek at our future.
December 2nd, 2008
The Future of Healthcare
When you think of futuristic medicine, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Some might reference the 1960s movie the Fantastic Voyage, where a team of scientists are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a dying man to save his life.
I think the 1960s television series Star Trek is what comes to mind first for most engineers. Take a moment to think about the technology - it was really quite extraordinary. Dr. McCoy simply waved a little device about the size of his thumb over a patient and (with the help of flashing lights and some sound effects), it instantly diagnosed what was wrong; a patient's vital signs were monitored simply by laying on the bed in sick bay; little devices stuck to your forehead could treat you instantly; and in subsequent iterations of the show, glasses could make someone who was blind see.
It seems to me that for the last 40 years, scientists have been trying to make the science fiction dreamed up by Hollywood writers a reality - or were the Hollywood writers simply using research that was already taking place as a starting point for their ideas?
Either way, much of what we saw on Star Trek decades ago has indeed become reality; or at least, close to it.
Take the tri-corder for example. Today doctors can take a drop of your blood, apply it to a tiny sliver of plastic called lab-on-a-chip, insert it into a handheld device the size of a cordless phone, and in less than 10 minutes can determine whether you're having a heart attack or not. That's a far cry from just a decade or so when they'd have to draw a fairly substantial amount of blood, send it to the lab, and then wait several hours for the results.
Unlike 4 decades ago, monitoring a patient's vital signs (via remote wireless sensing) isn't just limited to the bed. Today, patients don't have to be in the sick bay at all; rather, they can wear special clothes embedded with sensors to monitor certain vital signs as they go about their daily activities; or simply have tiny sensors implanted right inside their body.
As for sticking things to your skin to treat whatever condition it is you have: how about skin patches with sensors that monitor blood glucose and tiny microscopic pumps that deliver insulin? For those with Diabetes, the use of needles may quickly become a thing of the past.
I realize the special glasses that allow the blind to see was a device that was part of the modern, next-generation series of star trek, but did you know that clinical trials are now underway for just such a thing? In this case, a tiny chip with an array of MEMS probes is surgically inserted into your retina - rudimentary vision has been restored with the help of special glasses.
If you really think about it, the core concept behind the Fantastic Voyage is now a reality as well and I'm not talking about "nanobots" here. Instead of shrinking your doctor and injecting him into your bloodstream, he or she can simply watch video of your insides - from the moment you swallow a tiny pill embedded with a camera. Even better, improvements to the technology continue to be made; now such pills can also deliver medicine.
And that's just the beginning. While some of what's being developed seems more fitting to the imagination of Hollywood writers, much of it is already far beyond what they could possibly dream up; and what's even most exciting, is that it's real.
In this week's radio show we'll talk in detail about the future of healthcare and the role that MEMS and nanotechnology are playing in medicine.
You can listen to the entire show on bournereport.com or look for Bourne Report Radio in iTunes, Google and Newsgator.
This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #121.
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