The Fate of Humanity

the-futureWelcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.

1. Humanrien:
extinctionDue to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.

One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…

2. Post-Apocalyptic:
post-apocalypticWhether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.

At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.

3. Dog Days:
arcology_lillypadThe world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.

The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.

In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.

No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.

4. Technological Plateau:
computer_chip4Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.

It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.

Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.

Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!

5. The Green Revolution:
MarsGreenhouse2The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.

Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.

This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.

Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…

6. Intrepid Explorers:
spacex-icarus-670Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.

These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.

This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.

One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…

7. Post-Humanity:
artificial-intelligence1Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.

Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.

It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.

Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.

8. Star Children:
nanomachineryEarth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.

Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.

If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…

_____

Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!

The Future of Medicine: The Era of Artificial Hearts

05Between artificial knees, total hip replacements, cataract surgery, hearing aids, dentures, and cochlear implants, we are a society that is fast becoming transhuman. Basically, this means we are dedicated to improving human health through substitution and augmentation of our body parts. Lately, bioprinting has begun offering solutions for replacement organs; but so far, a perfectly healthy heart, has remained elusive.

Heart disease is the number one killer in North America, comparable only to strokes, and claiming nearly 600,000 lives every year in the US and 70,000 in Canada. But radical new medical technology may soon change that. There have been over 1,000 artificial heart transplant surgeries carried out in humans over the last 35 years, and over 11,000 more heart surgeries where valve pumps were installed have also been performed.

artificial-heart-abiocor-implantingAnd earlier this month, a major step was taken when the French company Carmat implanted a permanent artificial heart in a patient. This was the second time in history that this company performed a total artificial heart implant, the first time being back in December when they performed the implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought. This was a major development for two reasons.

For one, robotic organs are still limited to acting as a temporary bridge to buy patients precious time until a suitable biological heart becomes available. Second, transplanted biological hearts, while often successful, are very difficult to come by due to a shortage of suitable organs. Over 100,000 people around the world at any given time are waiting for a heart and there simply are not enough healthy hearts available for the thousands who need them.

carmat_heartThis shortage has prompted numerous medical companies to begin looking into the development of artificial hearts, where the creation of a successful and permanent robotic heart could generate billions of dollars and help revolutionize medicine and health care. Far from being a stopgap or temporary measure, these new hearts would be designed to last many years, maybe someday extending patients lives indefinitely.

Carmat – led by co-founder and heart transplant specialist Dr. Alain Carpentier – spent 25 years developing the heart. The device weighs three times that of an average human heart, is made of soft “biomaterials,” and operates off a five-year lithium battery. The key difference between Carmat’s heart and past efforts is that Carmat’s is self-regulating, and actively seeks to mimic the real human heart, via an array of sophisticated sensors.

carmat-artificial-heartUnfortunately, the patient who received the first Carmat heart died prematurely only a few months after its installation. Early indications showed that there was a short circuit in the device, but Carmat is still investigating the details of the death. On September 5th, however, another patient in France received the Carmat heart, and according to French Minister Marisol Touraine the “intervention confirms that heart transplant procedures are entering a new era.”

More than just pumping blood, future artificial hearts are expected to bring numerous other advantages with them. Futurists and developers predict they will have computer chips and wi-fi capacity built into them, and people could be able to control their hearts with smart phones, tuning down its pumping capacity when they want to sleep, or tuning it up when they want to run marathons.

carmat_heart1The benefits are certainly apparent in this. With people able to tailor their own heart rates, they could control their stress reaction (thus eliminating the need for Xanax and beta blockers) and increase the rate of blood flow to ensure maximum physical performance. Future artificial hearts may also replace the need for some doctor visits and physicals, since it will be able to monitor health and vitals and relay that information to a database or device.

In fact, much of the wearable medical tech that is in vogue right now will likely become obsolete once the artificial heart arrives in its perfected form. Naturally, health experts would find this problematic, since our hearts respond to our surroundings for a reason, and such stimuli could very well have  unintended consequences. People tampering with their own heart rate could certainly do so irresponsibly, and end up causing damage other parts of their body.

carmat_heart2One major downside of artificial hearts is their exposure to being hacked thanks to their Wi-Fi capability. If organized criminals, an authoritarian government, or malignant hackers were dedicated enough, they could cause targeted heart failure. Viruses could also be sent into the heart’s software, or the password to the app controlling your heart could be stolen and misused.

Naturally, there are also some critics who worry that, beyond the efficacy of the device itself, an artificial heart is too large a step towards becoming a cyborg. This is certainly true when it comes to all artificial replacements, such as limbs and biomedical implants, technology which is already available. Whenever a new device or technique is revealed, the specter of “cyborgs” is raised with uncomfortable implications.

transhuman3However, the benefit of an artificial heart is that it will be hidden inside the body, and it will soon be better than the real thing. And given that it could mean the difference between life and death, there are likely to be millions of people who will want one and are even willing to electively line up for one once they become available. The biggest dilemma with the heart will probably be affordability.

Currently, the Carmat heart costs about $200,000. However, this is to be expected when a new technology is still in its early development phase. In a few years time, when the technology becomes more widely available, it will likely drop in price to the point that they become much more affordable. And in time, it will be joined by other biotechnological replacements that, while artificial, are an undeniably improvement on the real thing.

The era of the Transhumanism looms!

Source: motherboard.vice.com, carmatsa.com, cdc.gov, heartandstroke.com

Immortality Inc: Regrowing Body Parts

https://i2.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/hero/lizardtails-2.jpgAnyone who has ever observed a lizard must not have failed to notice that they are capable of detaching their tails, and then regenerating them from scratch. This propensity for “spontaneous regeneration” is something that few organisms possess, and mammals are sadly not one of them. But thanks to a team of Arizona State University scientists, the genetic recipe behind this ability has finally been unlocked.

This breakthrough is a small part of a growing field of biomedicine that seeks to improve human health by tampering with the basic components (i.e. our DNA). The research, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Arizona Biomedical Research Commission, also involved scientists from the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Translational Genomic Research Institute, and Michigan State University.

dna_cancerAccording to Prof. Kenro Kusumi, lead author of a paper on the genetic study, lizards are the most closely-related animals to humans that can regenerate entire appendages. They also share the same genetic language as us, so it’s theoretically possible that we could do what they do, if only we knew which genes to use and in what amounts. As Kusumi explains in the paper, which was published Aug. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE. :

Lizards basically share the same toolbox of genes as humans. We discovered that they turn on at least 326 genes in specific regions of the regenerating tail, including genes involved in embryonic development, response to hormonal signals, and wound healing.

Other animals, such as salamanders, frog tadpoles, and fish, can also regenerate their tails. During tail regeneration, they all turn on genes in what is called the ‘Wnt pathway’ — a process that is required to control stem cells in many organs such as the brain, hair follicles and blood vessel. However, lizards have a unique pattern of tissue growth that is distributed throughout the tail.

calico-header-640x353 It takes lizards more than 60 days to regenerate a functional tail — forming a complex regenerating structure with cells growing into different tissues at a number of sites along the tail. According to Katsumi, harnessing this would be a boon for medicine for obvious reasons:

Using next-generation technologies to sequence all the genes expressed during regeneration, we have unlocked the mystery of what genes are needed to regrow the lizard tail. By following the genetic recipe for regeneration that is found in lizards, and then harnessing those same genes in human cells, it may be possible to regrow new cartilage, muscle or even spinal cord in the future.

The researchers also hope their findings will also help repairing birth defects and treating diseases such as arthritis. Given time, and enough positive results, I think it would be fair to expect that Google’s Clinical Immortality subsidiary – known as Calico – will buy up all the necessary rights. Then, it shouldn’t be more than a decade before a gene treatments is produced that will allow for spontaneous regeneration and the elimination of degenerative diseases.

The age of post-mortal is looming people. Be scared/enthused!

Sources: kurzweil.net, gizmag.com

Ending Parkinsons: Wearables and Cloud Storage

parkinsonsBehind Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease is the second-most widespread neurodegenerative brain disorder in the world, and affects one out of every 100 people over the age of 60. After first being described in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson, treatment and diagnosis have barely changed. Surgery, medications, and management techniques can help relieve symptoms, but as of yet, there is no cure.

In addition, the causes are not fully understood and appear to vary depending on the individual. But measuring it is often a slow process that doesn’t generate nearly enough data for researchers to make any significant progress. Luckily, Intel recently teamed up with the Michael J. Fox Foundation to and have proposed using wearable devices, coupled with cloud computing, to speed up the data collection process.

apple_iwatch1Due to the amount of variables involved in Parkinson’s symptoms — speed of movement, frequency and strength of tremors, how it affects sleep, and so on — the symptoms are difficult and tedious to track. Often, data is accrued through patient diaries, which is a slow process. Intel’s plan, which will involve the deployment of smartwatches, can not only increase the rate of data collection, but detect a much higher volume of variables and frequency than a personal diary could.

It is hopes that they will be able to record 300 observations per second, thus creating a massive amount of data per patient. The use of wearables means that the data can even be reported and monitored by researchers and doctors in real time. Later this year, the MJFF is even planning on launching a mobile app that adds medication intake monitoring and allows patients to record how they feel, making personal diaries easier to create and share.

cloud-serverIn order to collect and manage the data, it will be uploaded to a cloud storage data platform, and has the ability to notice changes in the data in real time. This allows researchers to track the changes in patient symptoms and share from a large field of data to better spot common patterns and symptoms. In the end, its not quite a cure, but it should help speed up the process of finding one.

Wearable technology, cloud computing and wireless data monitoring are the hallmarks of personalized medicine, which appears to be the way of the future. And while the concept of metadata and keeping medical information in centralized databases may make some nervous (as it raises certain privacy issues), keeping it anonymous and about the symptoms should lead to a speedy development of treatments and ever cures.

And be sure to check out this video from the intelnewsroom, explaining the collaboration in detail:

Source: extremetech.com

 

The Future is Here: Glucose-Monitoring Contact Lenses

google-novartis-alcon-smart-contact-lens-0Earlier this year, Google announced that it was developing a contact lens that would be capable of monitoring blood glucose levels. By monitoring a person’s glucose levels through their tears, and sending that information to a smartphone, the device promised to do away with tests that require regular blood samples and pinpricks. And now, a partnership has been announced between that will help see this project through to completion.

Alcon, the eye care division of Novartis – a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company – recently joined Google’s project to commercialize “smart contact lens” technology. The project, which came out of the Google X blue-sky innovation arm of the company, aimed to utilize a “tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material,” in order to detect glucose levels present in tears.

google-novartis-alcon-smart-contact-lensAt the time of the initial announcement in January, Google said its prototypes were able to take one glucose reading per second and that they was investigating ways for the device to act as an early warning system for the wearer should glucose levels become abnormal. All that was needed was a partner with the infrastructure and experience in the medical industry to see the prototypes put into production.

Under the terms of the new agreement, Google will license the technology to Alcon “for all ocular medical uses” and the two companies will collaborate to develop the lens and bring it to market. Novartis says that it sees Google’s advances in the miniaturization of electronics as complementary to its own expertise in pharmaceuticals and medical device. No doubt, the company also sees this as an opportunity to get in on the new trend of digitized, personalized medicine.

future_medicineAs Novartis said in a recent press release:

The agreement marries Google’s expertise in miniaturized electronics, low power chip design and microfabrication with Alcon’s expertise in physiology and visual performance of the eye, clinical development and evaluation, as well as commercialization of contact and intraocular lenses.

The transaction remains subject to anti-trust approvals, but assuming it goes through, Alcon hopes it will help to accelerate its product innovation. And with that, diabetics can look forward to yet another innovative device that simplifies the blood monitoring process and offers better early warning detection that can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, foot ulcers, loss of vision, and coma.

Sources: gizmag.com, novartis.com

The Future of Medicine: Muscle-Powered Pacemaker

piezoelectric-pacemakerOver the past few decades, cardiac pacemakers have improved to the point that they have become a commonplace medical implant that have helped improve or save the lives of millions around the world. Unfortunately, the battery technology that is used to power these devices has not kept pace. Every seven years they need to be replaced, a process which requires further surgery.

To address this problem, a group of researchers from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a cardiac pacemaker that is powered by harnessing energy from the body’s own muscles. The research team, headed by Professor Keon Jae Lee of KAIST and Professor Boyoung Joung, M.D. at Severance Hospital of Yonsei University, has created a flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator can keep a pacemaker running almost indefinitely.

piezoelectric_nanogeneratorTo test the device, Lee, Joung and their research team implanted the pacemaker into a live rat and watched as it produced electrical energy using nothing but small body movements. Based on earlier experiments with piezoelectric generator technology used by KAIST to produce a low-cost, large area version, the team created their new high-performance flexible nanogenerator from a thin film semiconductor material.

In this case, lead magnesium niobate-lead titanate (PMN-PT) was used rather than the graphene oxide and carbon nanotubes of previous versions. As a result, the new device was able to harvest up to 8.2 V and 0.22 mA of electrical energy as a result of small flexing motions of the nanogenerator. This voltage was sufficient enough to stimulate the rat’s heart directly.

pacemaker3The direct benefit of this experimental technology could be in the production and use of self-powered flexible energy generators that could increase the life of cardiac pacemakers, reduce the risks associated with repeated surgeries to replace pacemaker batteries, and even provide a way to power other implanted medical monitoring devices. As Professor Keon Jae Lee explains:

For clinical purposes, the current achievement will benefit the development of self-powered cardiac pacemakers as well as prevent heart attacks via the real-time diagnosis of heart arrhythmia. In addition, the flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator could also be utilized as an electrical source for various implantable medical devices.

Other self-powering experimental technologies for cardiac pacemakers have sought to provide energy from the beating of the heart itself, or from external sources, such as in light-controlled non-viral optogenetics.But the KAIST pacemaker appears to be the first practical version to demonstrate real promise in living laboratory animals and, with any luck, human patients in the not-too-distant future.

heart_patchesAnd while this does represent a major step forward in the field of piezoelectrics – a technology that could power everything from personal devices to entire communities by harnessing kinetic energy – it is also a boon for non-invasive medicine and energy self-sufficiency.

And be sure to check out this video of the pacemaker at work, courtesy of KAIST and the Severance Hospital of Yonsei University:


Sources: gizmag.com, circep.ahajournals.org, kaist.edu

The Future is Here: FDA Approves Human Suspended Animation

prometheus-cryotubeWe’ve all heard about it, read about it, and seen it in the movies. Suspended Animation. The ability to put someone in a tank and chill them to the point where their heart rate, breathing, and metabolism are reduced to an absolute minimum, preserving their life or prolonging it artificially. It’s a common science fiction concept, but could such a technique ever be made feasible? That is what a team of researchers from UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, with FDA approval, are attempting to answer.

The purpose of this research is to see if suspended animation can deliver on its main promise – namely, keeping a patient alive long enough to receive life-saving treatment or surgery. Oftentimes with disease and traumatic injuries, the difference between life and death is a simple matter of timing. And for those patients who simply cannot be helped with the current level of technology and pharmacology, it is also a race against time, trying to stay alive long enough to see science catch up with the illness.

EPRThis Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation (EPR) technique isn’t quite as extreme as what we’ve come to know from science fiction franchises. Instead of reducing a patient’s temperature to near-freezing levels, it involves reducing body temperature to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) by inserting a cannula into the aorta and flushing cold saline into the system. This will slow the blood flow, which will prevent the body from bleeding out and slow other biological processes as well.

So far, the result have been pretty subdued – with the EPR state of induced hypothermia only being sustainable for about two hours. While this isn’t as dramatic as some may have expected, that could easily provide enough time for surgeons to perform emergency lifesaving surgery. Trauma patients who suffer cardiac arrest have a 7% chance of survival, and administering this technique could have some very real and amazing implications.

suspended-animationThis technique was first tested by Peter Rhee in 2000 using 40 pigs, the results of which were published in 2006. After inflicting a lethal wound to simulate real-world trauma scenarios, the pigs were cooled down so the surgeons could operate then resuscitate them. While all of the control pigs died, the surgeons were able to save 90% of the pigs who had undergone suspension. None of the surviving pigs were reported to have sustained cognitive or physical impairment either.

And as per usual, animal testing is followed by human trials to see if success can be replicated. Due to the extremely time-sensitive and dire nature of the injuries of the test subjects, the FDA has declared that the surgeons will not require informed consent. As a precaution, the team took out advertisements to inform the public of the upcoming study, and even set up a website that would allow people to opt out, if desired. As of yet, nobody has opted out.

alien-stasis-suspended-animationThe plan for testing this process is for the team to the technique on 10 trauma patients whose injuries would be otherwise fatal. That group will be compared against 10 other patients who are not able to undergo EPR, due to the surgical team not being available. After the first increments of 10 EPR and 10 control patients, the technique will be analyzed and refined until enough data points have been collected which will allow them to analyze the efficacy of suspending life in this manner.

Should things work out, we can expect to see EPR becoming a regular part of modern medicine. And with further refinements, it may even be possible to place people in suspended animation for longer (or even indefinite) periods of time. If not, then I guess it will be just become one more of those many, many sci-fi fantasies that (like a patients in a story) will be put away until such time as the technology catches up to the fantasy.

Sources: dailycaller.com, iflscience.com

 

The Future of Medicine: Fake Muscles and 3D Printed Implants

3d-printed-jawWhen it comes to the future of medicine, its becoming increasingly clear that biomimetics and 3D printing will play an important role. Basically, this amounts to machines that are designed to mimic biology for the sake of making our bodies run better. In addition, it means that both medical machines and organic parts could be created on site, allowing for speedier, accessible and more cost-effective interventions and augmentations.

For example, research being conducted at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has led to the creation of artificial muscle that can imitate the beating motion of the heart – also known as the “Left Ventricle Twist”. This development, which is a big break in the field of biomimetics, could also be a game-changer when it comes to producing artificial hearts.

Artificial-Muscles-pic-1-400x267Their research started with what is known as a pneumatic artificial muscle (PAM), one which was modeled after the striated muscle fibers found in the heart. Made from silicone elastomer and embedded with braided mesh, this artificial heart was then hooked up to an air tube to see how it would handle being inflated. When air was pumped into the PAM, it responded by twisting and thus becoming shorter. This is similar to what the natural fibers of the heart do, which contract by twisting and shortening.

Several of the PAMs were then embedded within a matrix of the same elastomer from which they were made. Through a process of manipulating their orientation to one another, along with selectively applying different amounts of pressure, the researchers were able to get some of the PAMs twisting in one direction, at the same time that others twisted in the opposite direction. As a result, the silicone matrix exhibited the same three-dimensional twisting motion as the heart.

ArtificialMusclespic2-375x252The immediate applications for this are obvious; in short, creating a range of artificial hearts for patients who suffer from severe disorders or heart damage. Unlike conventional artificial hearts, these ones would be able to provide pumping action similar to the real thing. In addition, the PAMs were able to mimic the change in motion that is caused by various heart disorders, and these could be used to help in the research of such conditions, not to mention the development of treatments for them.

Equally exciting are the possibilities being offered by 3D printing which now offers a range of artificial replacements. The latest example comes from the Netherlands, where a 22-year old woman has had the top of her skull replaced with a 3D printed implant. Due to a severe condition that causes a thickening of the skull, the patient was suffering from severe and worsening symptoms. And in a first of its kind procedure, she was given a tailor-made synthetic replacement.

3d-printed-skullAs Dr. Bon Verwei of the University Medical Center (UMC) Utrecht explained, the surgery was not only a first, it was absolutely essential:

The thickening of the skull puts the brain under increasing pressure. Ultimately, she slowly lost her vision and started to suffer from motor coordination impairment. It was only a matter of time before other essential brain functions would have been impaired and she would have died. So intensive surgery was inevitable, but until now there was no effective treatment for such patients.

So far, 3D printing has been used to produce lower jaw implants, prosthetic arms, legs, and cells (kidney, liver, and skin cells). In this instance, the skull was 3D-modeled and then printed as a single full piece that was able to be slotted and secured into place. Prior to the procedure, Verwej and his team had to familiarize themselves with reconstructions and 3D printing, in particular that which pertained to partial skull implants.

3d-printed-cheekImplants have often been used when part of a skull has been removed to reduce pressure on an patient’s brain. However, Verweij claimed that cement implants are not always a good fit, and that 3D printing allows for exact specifications. As he explained it:

This has major advantages, not only cosmetically but also because patients often have better brain function compared with the old method.

Verweij worked with an Australian company called Anatomics – which uses 3D printing to produce custom-made implants and surgical models for medical practitioners – to produce the replacement skull. The surgery, only just announced, was carried out three months ago and was a success. According to Verweij, the patient has fully regained her vision and has returned to her normal life. The work undertaken on the procedure means that UMC Utrecht is now is a position to carry out other similar work.

3d-printed-skull-0The ability to tailor-make synthetic bones, which are exact duplicates to the original, offers exciting possibilities for reconstructive and replacement surgery. It also does away with some rather invasive and unsatisfactory procedures that involve putting shattered bones back together and joining them with pins, bars and screws. And considering that such procedures often require multiple operations, the combination of 3D scanning and 3D printed replacements is also far more cost effective.

And be sure to check out the video below that shows the Utrecht procedure. Be warned, the video contains actual footage of the surgery, and is therefore not recommended for the squeamish! English subtitles are also available via the video controls.


Sources:
gizmag.com, (2), wyss.harvard.edu

The Future of Medicine: Elastic Superglue and DNA Clamps

nanomachineryIf there’s one thing medical science is looking to achieve, it’s ways of dealing with sickness and injuries that are less invasive. And now more than ever, researchers are looking to the natural world for solutions. Whether it is working with the bodies own components to promote healing, or using technologies that imitate living organism, the future of medicine is all about engineered-natural solutions.

Consider the elastic glue developed by associate professor Jeffrey Karp, a Canadian-born medical researcher working at Harvard University. Created for heart surgery, this medical adhesive is designed to replace sutures and staples as the principle means of sealing incisions and defects in heart tissue. But the real kicker? The glue was inspired by sticky natural secretions of slugs.

hlaa-4Officially known as hydrophobic light-activated adhesive (HLAA), the glue was developed in a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital, MIT, and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And in addition to being biocompatible and biodegradable (a major plus in surgery), it’s both water-resistant and elastic, allowing it to stretch as a beating heart expands and contracts.

All of this adds up to a medical invention that is far more user-friendly than stitches and staples, does not have to be removed, and will not cause complications. On top of all that, it won’t complicate healing by restricting the heart’s movements, and only becomes active when an ultraviolet light shines on it, so surgeons can more accurately bind the adhesive exactly where needed.

hlaa-3The technology could potentially be applied not just to congenital heart defects, but to a wide variety of organs and other body parts. In an recent interview with CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks, Karp explained the advantages of the glue:

Sutures and staples really are not mechanically similar to the tissues in the body, so they can induce stress on the tissue over time. This is a material that’s made from glycerol and sebacic acid, both of which exist in the body and can be readily metabolized. What happens over time is that this material will degrade. Cells will invade into it and on top of it, and ideally the hole will remain closed and the patient won’t require further operations.

In lab tests, biodegradable patches coated with HLAA were applied to holes in the hearts of live pigs. Despite the high pressure of the blood flowing through the organs, the patches maintained a leakproof seal for the 24-hour test period. HLAA is now being commercially developed by Paris-based start-up Gecko Biomedical, which hopes to have it on the market within two to three years.

dnaclampIn another recent development, scientists at the Université de Montréal have created a new DNA clamp capable of detecting the genetic mutations responsible for causing cancers, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and other diseases. This clamp is not only able to detect mutations more efficiently than existing techniques, it could lead to more advanced screening tests and more efficient DNA-based nanomachines for targeted drug delivery.

To catch diseases at their earliest stages, researchers have begun looking into creating quick screening tests for specific genetic mutations that pose the greatest risk of developing into life-threatening illnesses. When the nucleotide sequence that makes up a DNA strand is altered, it is understood to be a mutation, which specific types of cancers can be caused by.

DNA-MicroarrayTo detect this type of mutation and others, researchers typically use molecular beacons or probes, which are DNA sequences that become fluorescent on detecting mutations in DNA strands. The team of international researchers that developed the DNA clamp state that their diagnostic nano machine allows them to more accurately differentiate between mutant and non-mutant DNA.

According to the research team, the DNA clamp is designed to recognize complementary DNA target sequences, binds with them, and form a stable triple helix structure, while fluorescing at the same time. Being able to identify single point mutations more easily this way is expected to help doctors identify different types of cancer risks and inform patients about the specific cancers they are likely to develop.

dna_cancerDiagnosing cancer at a genetic level could potentially help arrest the disease, before it even develops properly. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a Chemistry Professor at the Université de Montréal, explained the long-term benefits of this breakthrough in a recent interview:

Cancer is a very complex disease that is caused by many factors. However, most of these factors are written in DNA. We only envisage identifying the cancers or potential of cancer. As our understanding of the effect of mutations in various cancer will progress, early diagnosis of many forms of cancer will become more and more possible.

Currently the team has only tested the probe on artificial DNA, and plans are in the works to undertake testing on human samples. But the team also believes that the DNA clamp will have nanotechnological applications, specifically in the development of machines that can do targeted drug-delivery.

dna_nanomachineFor instance, in the future, DNA-based nanomachines could be assembled using many different small DNA sequences to create a 3D structure (like a box). When it encounters a disease marker, the box could then open up and deliver the anti-cancer drug, enabling smart drug delivery. What’s more, this new DNA clamp could prove intrinsic in that assembly process.

Professor Francesco Ricci of the University of Rome, who collaborated on the project, explained the potential in a recent interview:

The clamp switches that we have designed and optimized can recognize a DNA sequence with high precision and high affinity. This means that our clamp switches can be used, for example, as super-glue to assemble these nano machines and create a better and more precise 3D structure that can, for example, open in the presence of a disease marker and release a drug.

Hmm, glues inspired by mollusc secretions, machines made from DNA. Medical technology is looking less like technology and more like biology every day now!

Sources: cbc.ca, gizmag.com, (2)

The Future is Here: Handheld 3-D Bioprinter

handheld_bioprinterSince it’s inception, bioprinting has offered medical science and astounding range of applications, with new being added every day. In just the past few years, researchers have found ways to create 3-D printed cartilage, replacement skin, and even miniature kidneys and livers using stem cells. And now, with this latest development, doctor’s may be able to “draw” replacement tissue as easily as they scrawl their signatures on a prescription pad.

It’s known as the BioPen, a handheld surgical device that works a little like a mini-3-D printer may soon be used to help repair damaged bones. Developed by Austrian researchers, the pen allows a surgeon to draw layers of stem cells directly at the site of an injury. Much like a a 3-D printer deposits plastic one layer at a time, the BioPen deposits gel in layers to create a 3-D structure.

BioPenAfter filling the damaged bone with the cells – mixed with a biodegradable seaweed extract to hold everything together- an ultraviolet light on the pen sets the gel in place. After the cells are in place, they multiply and eventually form functioning tissue. The device can also be used to apply growth factors to stimulate cell growth and other drugs (like cortisone) directly to where they are needed.

University of Wollongong professor Gordon Wallace, one of the researchers who is working on the project along with a team from the University of Melbourne, expressed the benefits of the device this way:

Biology works in 3-D. The ability to provide an appropriate structural environment for the stem cells enables more effective development into the appropriate tissue.

3dstemcellsIn the past, surgeons might have just injected stem cells to the desired area. But now, using the pen to build a small scaffold out of the gel, the cells can be better protected and more likely to survive. The researchers say it’s also easier to be precise with the pen in hand, and the whole process takes less time than surgeries would have in the past.

To further illustrate the uses and applications of additive manufacturing, the prototype itself was built in the researchers’ lab using a 3-D printer. According to Wallace, next-generation fabrication techniques not only made it possible to easily build the pen, but they also make it possible to quickly iterate new versions of the hardware.

bioprinted heartAnd while their partners at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne are working on optimizing the cell material, Wallace and his team of researchers will begin conducting animal trials with the BioPen, beginning later this year. If all goes well, the device could be undergoing human trials sometime in 2015, and available in hospitals in just a few years time.

And combined with other procedures that can generate replacement tissue (eyes, organs, skin), we will be looking at the age of biomedicine in full bloom!

Source: fastcoexist.com