For centuries the art of medicine has been dominated by bumps, bruises, or other symptoms, felt by the patient or discovered by the physician, with eyes ever-magnified by increasingly sophisticated scanning technology: the microscope, the x-ray, and eventually the MRI. But however powerful the machine, the underlying model remained the same. To find the illness, doctors first had to look for the symptom. To diagnose the cancer, they had to see the tumor. To find a drug, they had to undergo a long, costly, and laborious process of trial and error, trying millions of natural compounds on animals to find one that seemed to work.
This approach to medicine may be coming to an end. As drug discovery becomes an information-based science, seeded by rapid increases in computer processing power and the marriage of test tubes with microchips, we are transforming the way we diagnose and treat many of the worst human diseases. New drugs currently in clinical trials are no longer scattershot one-size-fits-all affairs, but carefully targeted to the molecular fingerprints of specific diseases. Some of these drugs are even targeted to a patient’s unique DNA profile. In a breathtaking paradigm shift, medicine is moving from the species level — the ingrained assumption that drugs and diseases work the same in all human beings — to the individual level, unlocking new healing possibilities in the minute differences between seemingly similar diseases and their individual victims. The result will be a new age of medical therapy, dominated not by cell, tissue, and organ replacements but by early diagnosis and individualized drug treatments.
As there are so many amazing things going on worldwide in medicine and healthcare, a shortlist of some of the greatest ideas and developments would give us a glimpse into the future of medicine. It is always a challenge to detect the projects with the biggest potential to be used in everyday medical practices, but here are the most promising candidates for fulfilling this notion.
1. Google Brain
Ian Pearson wrote in his book, You Tomorrow, about the possibility that one day we will be able to create digital selves based on neurological information. It means we could upload our minds to a computer and live on in a digital form. As Google hired Ray Kurzweil to create the ultimate artificial intelligence controlled brain, this opportunity should not be so far away. We might have been looking for the secret of immortality in the wrong places.
2. Growing organs in labs
There are new technologies that might be able to restore the function of human organs or replace them entirely. Nanofilters that act as an artificial kidney and might soon replace dialysis are a good example. Ultimately, I believe growing organs from a patient’s stem cells will be the solution for transplantation waiting lists. Scientists have recently demonstrated beating human hearts can be grown from stem cells. Growing organs in Petri dishes still sounds surreal.
3. Sensors that teach us about our own body and health
I’ve been taking care of my body all my life, but until now, success was mostly random without instant feedback and data. Today, sensors van measure my health parameters, granting me insight into my exercise habits, sleep quality, stress levels or my brain activity during meditation. I can draw conclusions like never before. As the size of health sensors shrinks further with advances like digital tattoos and nano-robots in our bloodstream, we will understand our bodies and health in fine grained detail like never before.
4. Virtual reality lets astronauts stay on Earth
I have always dream of being an astronaut and I do believe the long term future of humanity is inter-galactic. But due to the fragility of human health, we might not be able to travel long distances in space anytime soon due to the limitations of our own biology. Robots equipped with virtual reality devices could travel on extended space flights, allowing astronauts to discover new places while controlling them from Earth.
5. The universal translator
Douglas Adams wrote about the Babel fish in his book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His main character, Arthur Dent put the fish into his ear to understand every language in the Galaxy. Skype is reported working on such a translator that can already translate from Arabic to English live. Language is often a barrier in healthcare, and will need to be overcome if telemedicine is to provide remote access to medical experts from anywhere on the globe. A universal translator would eventually enable a healthcare system without borders.
6. Recreational cyborgs
There are already famous examples of real life cyborgs, and I am truly convinced that such creatures will not only populate the terrain of sci-fi movies, but they will be everywhere around us in the very near future. The ‘cyborg-craze’ will eventually start with a new generation of hipsters who implant devices and technologies in their bodies just to look cooler. Advances in future medical technology will not just repair physical disadvantages such as impaired eyesight but will create superhuman powers from having the eyesight of an eagle to having the hearing of a bat. While a patient wearing implanted defibrillators or pacemakers can also be added to the group of cyborgs, I expect to see more cases when patients ask for the implantation of a certain device without having medical problems.
7. In silico clinical trials
Switching from long and extremely expensive clinical trials to tiny microchips which can be used as models of human cells, organs or whole physiological systems provides clear advantages. Drugs or components could be tested on these without limitations which would make clinical trials faster and even more accurate (in each case the conditions and circumstances would be the same). The Organs on Chips technology is able to use stem cells to mimic organs of the body with a series of devices. Many experts believe that this technology could revolutionize clinic center and replace animal testing completely. It could also improve cancer care.
8. BABIES GROWING OUTSIDE THE WOMB
Artificial wombs are mechanisms that are used to grow an embryo outside of the body of a female. Could this be the future of reproduction for humans? Scientists at Cornell University have grown mice embryos in man-made, bubble shaped wombs.
9. HEALTH WATCH
The house call is back. Doctors can already gather your glucose from their gardens and check your liver from the links (though your butt may come after the putt). Remote medical monitoring will be commonplace in the future and it promises to benefit both physicians and patients by saving time and money.
10. NANOTECHNOLOGY AND MEDICINE
Nano-medicine is promising great things, including great advancements in the treatment of cancer. Imagine swarms of nanobots swimming through your veins, repairing cells or attacking viruses. On second thought, get that image out of your mind, it’s a bit creepy. Just close your eyes and wait for the healing to begin.