Amazing Marvels of Science and Medicine

Amazing Marvels of Science and Medicine

CultureJuly 13, 2013

While it is the 21st century and there still is no (exact) cure for the common cold yet, research scientists and doctors across the world have been working hard to reduce the biggest health problems humans face. These are amazing marvels of modern medicine, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Prosthetic arms, legs, limbs
No more clunky plastic or metal organs like those on that creepy guy in “The Fugitive” who killed Harrison Ford’s wife. Those odd-looking, “skin-colored,” barely useful prosthetics are becoming a relic of the past. Now robotic arms and limbs are actually attached to nerves and, thus, may be operated with about the same effort it would take to operate your own arm. Imagine people with no legs walking with prosthetics without even thinking about it. If you think that’s cool, check out the next one.   

BrainGate Sensor
Keep in mind the prosthetics already mentioned, but consider what to do if someone doesn’t have any nerves or remaining connections from the body to the brain as is the case with paralyzation. That’s where this ridiculously awesome technology comes into play. Essentially, BrainGate connects your brain back to your body ... sort of. It uses electrical signals from a sensor implanted in the brain — it’s really not as bad as it sounds, especially if you’re already paralyzed — that relays to an external “decoder device” that is, in turn, connected to an external object or a prosthetic. So let’s get this straight, this device senses neurons firing in specific areas of the brain — think the cerebrum, the area that controls voluntary movements — and relays those messages through electromagnetic pulses to make an object move. Telekinesis anyone?    

Double arm/hand transplant
In a crazy long surgery that took 13 hours and 16 orthopedic surgeons, an Iraq war veteran who had four limbs severed during his tour,
successfully had two new arms and hands attached to his body. He’s the seventh person in this country to have such a procedure done and, at this rate, won’t be the last. This may sound like a miracle, but it requires years of intensive — we’re talking at least six hours a day — therapy. So while prosthetics are a nice fixer-upper, who wouldn’t want two new potentially functioning arms and hands, even if it takes years of work?

Face transplants
Although the first face transplant was performed in 2005 in France, the first full face transplant in the United States occurred last March. Two more full transplants here followed, and the surgery is trending. So far, some 30 patients worldwide have received some form of facial transplant. The eerie process involves carefully taking the face off of a cadaver, then keeping it in a preservation solution that, according to Bohdan Pomahac — the man in the states performing these surgeries — makes the face look “pale, there is no color in the lips; it’s almost gray,” until it’s attached to the patient’s blood vessels and the blood flows in, bringing the color back with it. Now none of these transplant recipients are going to win a beauty competition anytime soon, but wouldn’t you rather have a new face than one mauled by a dog or marred by severe burns? 

Building new organs from stem cells/tissue transplants
The world has not come to the point in “Repo Men” in which organs are readily for sale (as long as you’re willing to sign over your life if you can’t pay the ridiculously high interest rate), but it’s not far off from it. Scientists have implanted rats with man-made lungs, but the rats only survived for a week. Also, they’ve discovered a gene to basically transform a mouse’s liver into that of a human’s (at a smaller size) so they may accurately test certain drugs’ effects on the liver. Then there’s the story of three 6-year-old Mexican children who suffered damage to their urethras and couldn’t urinate properly. You can guess what happened next. Scientists created and shaped new urethras from tissue and stem cells, and then transplanted them into the children. Years later, the children were back to peeing freely. 
    
DNA based diagnoses for newborns/ genetic coding for all humans
It’s definitely not new news that the human genome was broken down, that we now can determine all of the chains of DNA that make up a single individual human (it still sounds so cool).  What is new are the potential applications.  Scientists are moving closer to a Gattaca-esque age in which children may be designed to be free of disease or tall or beautiful or athletic or smart, but for right now, they are able to use a baby’s genetic code to determine potential risk factors for disease or illnesses later in life ... so how far away are we from creating genetically improved humans?  Well it took around 15 years for the whole human genome to be sequenced, but it shouldn’t take that long this time around — because technology and medicinal breakthroughs grow and expand exponentially.

Biomarkers to monitor high risk heart attack patients
It used to be doctors had no real way of telling whether a heart attack sufferer would be prone to a second. Of course, there were risk factors and family history, but it was harder to predict behavior and outside contributors. Then Zeeshan Syed studied more than 5,000 heart attack patients’ heartbeats — that’s more than 10,000 hours of heartbeats — to find a pattern. The result: biomarkers. Now doctors and hospitals use these patterns all over the world to determine high-risk patients, which statistically are more likely to die in the year after their first attack.          

Notable Mentions     
Smart Phone Apps that could save your life
In Boston four programs have emerged that can tell you you have a problem. Well, at least one of them actually does that. Part of the Daily Data app actually measures the frequency of your calls, messages, e-mails and game playing to monitor your mood and general psychological well-being. Then there’s a tattoo for diabetics that, when hit with a light from an iPhone app measures your blood-sugar levels. Finally, two apps give you immediate results — faster than doctors — about potentially life-changing problems. One deals with tumors and, along with a tiny machine, takes biopsies. Another from MIT detects cataracts. Both provide faster results than you’re bound to see from any tests that actually require you to go into a hospital.   

Russian Guy who wants to create avatars
If the BrainGate Sensor seemed like a lot, that’s nothing compared to what Dmitry Itskov is trying to do. The Russian billionaire got tired of spending his money on extravagances and worldly luxuries (who wouldn’t, right?) and funneled most of his money into creating real-life avatars. That’s right, by 2045 this mogul wants to transport human consciousness into artificial bodies. In other words, cyborgs. This would’ve been higher on the list if it wasn’t so far into the future. The best part is that he wants to do it for humanitarian reasons such as curing world hunger, stopping disease and other unchangeable limitations, and finally, you might’ve guessed it, preventing death. Immortality through expanded consciousness ... like “Vanilla Sky” meets Isaac Asimov’s (sci-fi writer who wrote “I, Robot”) short story “The Last Question.”   

Cure for AIDS/HIV
Some people think the government has had a cure for AIDS for awhile, or even that it originally administered the virus. Well the cure part might actually be true. Bruce Walker and Arup Chakraborty of Harvard Medical School recently published information on a polyprotein they discovered that just might isolate HIV’s basic structure. This means they could take down the tricky, always mutating virus from its core. But, not so fast; they just received the go ahead to begin animal trials.       

    —Phil J. Ziols