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When it comes to medicine, we’ve gotten used to being pessimistic. Sure, we’ve got some great treatments for some diseases. But a real panacea always seems so elusive. Treatments for high-blood pressure or cancer are usually only partially successful. They don’t return our bodies to a disease-free state. Rather, they manage symptoms or keep the disease at bay.
You might wonder whether medical technology is actually making any substantial strides at all. It’s a question that the world famous Cleveland Clinic wanted to answer too. And so they set about chronicling all the medical breakthrough technologies that are already having an impact. Here’s what they found.
The Robot Doctor
Robot doctors sound like something straight out of science fiction. In fact, they’re such science fiction that Star Trek completely neglected to mention them. But it turns out that they’re a real thing, and they’re making an impact right now.
When you go for a colonoscopy, it can be a bit of an ordeal. So ideally, you’d like to be given a sedative and be put to sleep while it’s going on. But it turns out that giving sedatives, even light ones is a complicated procedure requiring an expert. And these experts, called anesthesiologists, don’t come cheap. According to JAMA, they cost Americans around $1 billion a year.
Here’s where things get interesting. Robot doctor company Sedasys believes it has a solution to expensive anaesthesiologists. Get rid of them entirely and replace them with a robot.
Sedasys has created a system that can deliver IVs robotically while monitoring vital signs at the same time. According to some, if Michael Jackson’s doctor had had access to this, the singer would still be alive.
The Gene-Editing Tool
The human genome project was started back in 1987. The idea was to map all of the genes in human DNA, one by one. Back then it was a monumental task. Few people had even mapped a single gene, let alone all the millions of base pairs in human DNA. And many thought that the project would go on for hundreds of years. But, over time, computers got faster and sequencing sped up. The project was finished fourteen years later. And the whole of the human genome had been read.
Now millions of genomes have been read, opening up the possibility to analyze them for patterns of disease. But reading genomes isn’t what is exciting most people in the field right now. It’s editing them that’s really got people talking. You may have heard of a technology called CRISPR, developed back in 2011. Essentially it’s a tool that allows researchers to insert chunks of DNA into existing sequences. Potentially it means that doctors will be able to edit the genes of people with defective genomes.
The cool thing is that trials are already underway. Companies like Poseida are working on translating these editing technologies into actual treatments.
Some experts, like Ray Kurzweil, say that gene editing techniques are going to go into high gear between now and 2030. He says that they are going to start curing hereditary diseases one after another after another. Let’s hope he’s right.
The Fecal Implant
For years, the human microbiome was completely ignored by researchers. Yes, they knew it was a collection of bacteria living in our guts. But they dramatically underestimated its importance to our health.
But now things are changing. Scientists are beginning to realize that the microbiome is important after all. In fact, it’s probably one of the primary determinants of our health and wellbeing. Gut health has been linked to everything, from depression to diabetes. And so now scientists are looking for ways to help improve it.
One of the most high-profile methods is the so-called fecal implant. It sounds totally bizarre – and it is. You take a fecal sample from a person with a healthy gut and put it into the gut of an unhealthy person. Then you wait and see what happens. Ideally, the good bacteria from the healthy person will start colonizing the gut of the sick person and return them to health.
Currently, the fecal implant is being used to help people recover from nasty C. difficile infections. But in the future, it will find many new and varied applications.
The AI General Practitioner
A few years ago, IBM unveiled a computer named Watson. Watson was a rather special computer because it was the first to compete with humans on the TV game show, Jeopardy! In 2011, it went on TV in front of a live audience and defeated the two reigning world champion, human players. At the time, it didn’t seem like Watson’s victory had anything at all to do with medicine. But it soon became clear that the tools it used to win Jeopardy could be repurposed to diagnose disease.
IBM spent the next four years working on Watson’s AI software. The original Watson was able to win Jeopardy by reading millions of pages of text on the internet. That same reading power is now used by the system to help it diagnose diseases.
Thus Watson is being employed by clinics to help GPs diagnose patients’ conditions more accurately. When doctors and Watson work together, accurate patient diagnosis rates shoot up.
The Cure For Hepatitis
Hepatitis is a nasty disease that attacks the liver and can lead to severe problems for patients. The standard regimen, until now, has been moderately effective. But even after a 48-week course, only around 70 percent of patients go into remission. What’s more, the current antiviral drug, interferon, has some rather nasty side-effects.
Step up Sofosbuvir. Sofosbuvir is the panacea in the treatment of hepatitis we have all been waiting for. It’s a drug that’s a lot more deadly to the hepatitis C virus, and it’s been successful in 95 percent of cases. The course is also a lot shorter than the course for interferon at only 12 weeks.
The great thing is that this article is just scratching the surface. There’s so much going on right now in the medical world that we can look forward to a brighter future.
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