Thursday, January 23, 2014
Medical Tricorder, Make It So!
Wouldn't it be great if visiting the doctor was as simple as running an app on your smartphone? Recent advances in medical technology have brought us tantalizingly close to this idea, we must wonder if soon the whole field of medicine will be transformed into something resembling the high tech med bay in startrek.
In case you are not familiar with startrek, this show (specifically next generation and later) depicts some of the most powerful, non invasive, futuristic medical techniques in a sci fi. They have external scanners that can see details down to the cellular level, injections that work through the skin, and beams that heal any wound instantly, just to name a few. I would like to focus upon a particular devise used throughout the startrek universe, namely the tricorder.
The tricorder is a small handheld computer, similar to a smartphone, but with advanced scanner and capabilities. There are various types of tricorders on the show, scientific, medical, ect. I will be focusing on the medical tricorder.
There have been a number of recent breakthroughs in real tricorder technology, they have mostly involved devices that do very specific things, but the designs are becoming more general as the technology advances. A specifically medical device has been created by the company Scanadu, it is probably the most advanced medical tricorder to date.
The Scanadu is a small box with a detachable sensor that you touch with your finger, then you touch the scanner itself to your head for ten seconds. After this, the machine provides a readout of various medical statistics, heart rate, oxygenation level, skin temperature ect. One could imagine a very advanced version of this device being integrated into your smartphone.
So some day soon, we may wake up and do a complete medical scan every morning, the benefits to health and longevity are obvious. What about treatment though? Could we build a completely automated medical system that scans, diagnoses, and treats you right in your own home without having to consult a real doctor? I would like to think the answer is yes, and current trends in computing and automation would point in that direction.
Of course, no discussion of futuristic home treatment would be complete without mentioning nano medicine, the treatment of the body at the molecular level. Using tiny robots smaller than your cells, almost any aspect of disease or injury can be treated, simply by ingesting a capsule containing the nanites.
By this method you could be scanned and treated every morning from your smart phone via completely non invasive process. A nano printer could fabricate your nanite capsule on the spot, and with proper diagnostic computers, the whole process could become autonomous. So how close are we to this?
Many individual pieces of this system already exist, and all of the fields involved have experienced exponential growth in the past few years. Nanites exist that are capable of being programmed to deliver a single molecule of a drug to a location, increasing the safety and precision of pharmacological agents. Nanites for all sorts of specific tasks have been created, nanites that eat specific cancers, nanites that search for damaged cells, nanites that fix damaged DNA, even super red blood cells that can carry several times the amount of oxygen that normal red blood cells carries.
The Scanadu tricorder is rudimentary compared to the startrek counterpart, but keep in mind this technology is on the market right now. It's hard to imagine ahead even five years time, the advances could be so great that any forecast is dubious at best. Yet we can imagine a form that this technology could take, a form that grants humanity the ultimate gifts, health, youth and time.
Because that is what these creations could mean for the world, the end of pain, the end of death, the end of poverty and environmental destruction. It is upon those with the bravery of imagination to create visions of what could be, in attempt to influence what exists now and sculpt the final product into a reflection of humanities peaceful and artistic nature.