Top New Medical Technologies of 2014-2015
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We’ve all heard that the advancement of technology happens exponentially. Our access to information and education continues to improve; our global media creates new demand by broadcasting localized breakthroughs; and above all, our unbridled human spirit takes stock of these improvements, adds to them, and marches on relentlessly toward scientific progress. The year 2014 is a strong testament to this inexorable trend, and 2015 promises to be a yet another banner year in the development of new medical technologies.
Five Medical Developments That Are Changing the World
3-D Printing of (Biological) Materials – In November 2014, The New Yorker published an article on the incredible potential for 3-D printing as a medical technology. Although fully functional organs have not yet been “printed” as of the writing of this article, there have been many exciting developments which indicate a bright future for this research.
There has been an explosion of medical applications for two types of 3-D printing: inert, non-living devices and and biological (living) structures. In the first realm, 3-D printing has dominated for years. Ninety-five percent of all hearing aids are 3-D printed using a technology called Widex developed in Denmark. Additionally, Align Technology prints 650,000 pairs of teeth-straightening materials (e.g., Invisalign) every day.
With respect to biological applications, the printers (or “bioreactors”) are currently capable of creating any pattern of vascular channels and other types of intricately realistic anatomical structures (e.g., mitral valves, fingers, optic nerves).
There are many projected, biological applications for 3-D printing in medicine:
Embryonic stem cells – These have already been “printed” in a lab at Heriot-Watt University and could one day assist in the growth of new organs
Blood vessels and heart tissue – The company Organovo has successfully printed blood vessels, cardiac tissue, and liver tissue
Bone and cartilage – At Washington State University, researchers have developed a hybrid material that offers the same flexibility and strength as real bone using 3-D printers
All of these exciting current and projected developments support the theory that virtually any tissue could be “printed” with the right combination of starting materials. Overall, the startling multiplication of uses for 3-D biological printing show no sign of abating and promise to be one of the most groundbreaking fields of research in the prevention and treatment of medical conditions.
Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) – Another emergent medical technology is the brain-computer interface (BCI), a project which started in efforts to help paraplegics and quadriplegics control computer cursors using their brains. It creates a wireless connection between a person wearing a brain activity sensor and a computer. The latest developments have shown promise for the control of robotic limbs via electrodes attached to the scalps of the patients. Researchers are hoping that this wearable tech eventually will abet the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimers and chronic pain. These devices are even penetrating consumer markets. For example, Muse, a “brain-sensing headband,” takes note of the wearer’s stress levels via brain activity and sends data to the person’s smartphone to develop a calming routine. Most recently this technology has even been used to connect two living beings in rudimentary telepathy experiments at Harvard University. Overall, BCI shows much promise in coming years with its various applications and dedicated scientists pushing into new frontiers.
Cancer Immunotherapy – The fight against cancer has always been complicated, but recent medical developments may have forever changed the treatment of this devastating disease. The problem with conventional chemotherapy is that it kills not only cancerous cells, but healthy cells as well which leads to unpleasant side effects. By contrast, cancer immunotherapy allies the patient’s own immune system in the battle against the illness by targeting specialized receptors in the immune system and the cancerous cells. Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche made great strides this year in the treatment of bladder cancer, a body of research which made the cover of the prestigious science journal Nature at the end of 2013. The BBC reports that Roche’s immunotherapy drugs work by undermining the cancer cells’ “camouflage” that normally protects them from patients’ immune systems. Therefore, with the cancer cells’ defenses down, the cancer sufferer’s immune system can unleash an attack on the diseased cells. While this treatment is still in its infancy, it has gotten the attention of medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies across the globe and promises to be a major player in the treatment of cancer for years to come.
Magnetic Nanoparticles – Osteoporosis and bone trauma have been problems throughout human history, and medical researchers believe there may be a new tool in the arsenal against these debilitating conditions. Researchers from Keele University and Nottingham University found that magnetic nanoparticles covered with targeting proteins can ignite bone regeneration via the stimulation of stem cells. This unprecedented bone growth is accomplished through staged releases of a protein growth stimulant. The precisely controlled magnetism delivers these particles to the areas where the patient needs them most. Historically these bone conditions have been treated with surgical grafts, an invasive and often unpleasant procedure with a long recovery time.
Robots – The incredible medical uses for robots once were the exclusive realm of science fiction writers. These days, however, robotic surgical systems, nanorobots, exoskeletons, and a whole range of applications are on the rise. First, the da Vinci Surgical System made it’s debut at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it has only expanded it’s abilities as a minimally invasive, surgeon-controlled, precision-driven, robotic machine. Second, nanorobots are showing great promise in the treatment of some medical conditions. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany created tiny robots that can swim through the bloodstream. It is hoped that these tiny machines will someday assist in measuring health parameters, diagnosing disease, delivering drugs, or even performing extremely localized surgeries. Finally, exoskeletons are already market-ready. Companies such as Ekso Bionics and ReWalk Robotics have assisted people with limited mobility. In 2014, the opening kick of the World Cup was made by a paraplegic man wearing an experimental robotic exoskeleton which was created by Dr. Miguel Nicolelis’ team in Brazil. These applications and more bespeak a promising future in the use of robots for the treatment of medical problems.
While there are countless exciting developments brewing in medical science, the applications of 3-D printing, BCIs, cancer immunotherapy, magnetic nanoparticles, and robotics are already transforming people’s lives across the globe. Only time (and research budgets) will tell what the future holds.