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July 10, 2013 at 2:52 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Medical Science Converging on Science Fiction

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This past week, I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with a friend to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the epic Civil War battle that turned the tide of the conflict. It's nearly impossible these days to fully imagine our country divided with over 150,000 of our ancestors converging in this town and engaging in three days of carnage that left 51,112 dead.

A further ironic during my visit was watching a demonstration of draconian 1860's surgical care as I stood next to my friend, a robotic surgeon on the cutting edge of technology and progress. I walked away marveling at just how far we've come. So I thought it fitting to step away from the rantings of negativity toward the present state of medicine and healthcare that fill the media in order to highlight some wonderful lifesaving advances on the cutting edge of medicine. Some of these advances, unfathomable 150 years ago, seem like (and resemble) science fiction - even today.

Star Trek Tricorder

We're not so far off from that fictional device called the tricorder that doctor "Bones" used like a magic wand to diagnose and treat every disease. Presently, there are over 10,000 health-related smartphone apps. And they're getting more sophisticated and "smart." Skin problems are being identified with treatment recommendations. Ear scope and heart monitoring attachments are assisting with related problems. There's really no reason to doubt that my smartphone (or something like it) will be my most important tool in taking care of patients in the very near future.

Transplanting Limbs and Faces

The thought of transplanting limbs, much like organs, is emerging toward becoming a reality. Far-reaching appendages such as fingers and even the hand have been reattached under the right conditions following traumatic amputation. In the recent years, in Spain, the first full face transplant occurred with success, and it is now done here in the U.S. Most technological hurdles have been negotiated regarding limb transplantation, yet some still remain. Most experts in the field believe, however, that it is just a matter of time before the procedure is perfected.

Tiny Robots

Remember the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage? In the film, a team of scientists and their submarine shrink to microscopic proportions and travel through the body of a fellow scientist to remove a blood clot from his brain. While we're not using shrink rays or anything of the sort, we are producing microscopic robots. Some of their pending applications are incredible. Scientists are hoping that this technology will lead toward devices like the "respirocyte," a robotic red blood cell with superior oxygen carrying capacity. Applications would include therapy for anemia, newborn lung disease, and tissue rescue after heart attack or stroke. A robotic white blood cell is also proposed with the ability to find and kill bacteria or cancer cells in the body. Stay tuned on this field known as "nanotechnology."

Large Robots

We don't have robot doctors like the one who took care of Luke Skywalker after his unfortunate amputation courtesy of Darth Vader, but doctors are increasingly using robots to assist in helping patients. Robotic surgery has been around for over a decade and continues to increase in prevalence despite those who criticize cost and errors (which are probably due to human error). The robot, known as The DaVinci, looks like something out of Star Wars and acts as the hands of the surgeon who operates remotely.

Robots are even replacing the hands, eyes, and ears of doctors outside of the operating room. This year, makers of the robotic vacuum Roomba received FDA approval for a physician-assist remote presence robot. This device can move from room to room in the hospital controlled by a doctor off site wielding a joystick. The robot allows the doctor to communicate with and examine the patient.

Press Print for Organ Construction

Who would have thought that body parts could be conjured up and produced by a state-of-the-art printer? Last year, however, this became a reality. In the Netherlands, a functioning jaw bone was computer-animated and then printed in 3-D for use. The printing occurred through fusing titanium powder. Government-funded research in the U.S. is underway working toward the 3-D printing of bio-material and microscopic components to create functional ears capable of receiving radio signals.

Final Reflections

As I left Gettysburg heading home, I detoured through Amish country. I noted people living content without any technology whatsoever save for some simple machinery. Do we need these cutting edge advances? No, not really. Are they incredibly expensive? You bet. As humans, however, we have always moved forward. And for those lives potentially saved and helped by medical advances, there really would be no other choice to make.

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