When Science Fiction Isn’t Fiction Anymore

March 20, 2016 | Featured Articles

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It’s not that long ago that 3D printing became a reality and Trekkies all over the world yelled, “It’s a replicator!” and while these next generation tech devices can’t yet make you a cup of Earl Grey tea (hot!) they are a great example of how futuristic devices from yesterday’s sci-fi novels and TV shows are fast becoming today’s reality.

Some of the most remarkable advances in 3D printing have been developments within the medical field. Using bio-ink, made of living cell structures, living tissue is “printed” and then built up in layers. Scientists and researchers have already successfully printed kidney cells, sheets of cardiac tissue, and other organ tissues.

In a 2013 study, researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh created a device capable of not only printing embryonic stem cells but also keeping the cells alive so they maintain their ability to develop into different cell types. The ultimate goal of this new “cell printer” is for surgeons to have the ability to make “tissue on demand” for various uses, but other applications such as making 3D human tissues for testing new drugs and growing organs also hold huge potential.

While science may still be a ways off from the ultimate end-goal of replicating whole organs, they are clearly on the path to getting there in the not-so-distant future. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently hacked a 3D printer and successfully produced models of a number of human organs. There is no doubt that 3D bioprinting is making unprecedented advancements in organ recreation, but huge strides in another area of science have already been made in terms of recreating our largest organ: our skin.

Self-healing skin — an ability we often associate with onscreen vampires and werewolves — is quickly becoming a reality. Using a new type of synthetic polymer, scientists have engineered a self-healing, flexible “e-skin” that mimics the properties of human skin. Cuts and scratches to the surface can heal quickly and repair themselves in an astonishingly short period of time, often in less than 24 hours — in other words, considerably faster than human skin. At present, e-skin is primarily being engineered for use on prosthetics with a goal towards sensitivity to touch and changes in the environment. The advent of e-skin goes hand in hand with other technologies being applied to the engineering of a new generation of so called “smart prosthetics” capable of sending vital information to the brain as well as anticipating the user’s intentions.

And what if that prosthetic arm could also be controlled by nothing more than thought? Engineers at John Hopkins are well on their way to recreating 70’s TV hero Steve Austin, aka the Six Million Dollar Man with their work in the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. Working together with government agencies, universities, and private firms, their aim is to develop neurally controlled upper-extremity prosthesis with near-natural motor and sensory capability.

Meet Les Baugh. At the age of 17, Les took a $5 bet from his step-brother to see who could run over a pile of gravel the fastest. Les won the race but tragically ran into a set of power lines when he turned back to look for his step-brother. In his own words, Les says the power lines “evaporated me” and doctors said he likely wouldn’t live to see 21. Beating the odds, Les is now 59 and he’s helping to test the new advanced robotic prosthetics at John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. A cutting-edge procedure called Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) is now being used to reassign the nerves that were formerly used to control the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder, to existing muscle groups still in the body. Through a process called sensory evaluation, patients like Les report where phantom limb sensations are felt and these sensation points are then used to “map out” the nerve endings for the missing limb. The results are nothing short of remarkable.



So, we now know there have been huge advances in terms of recreating parts of the human body, but what about advances in diagnosis? I’m sure more than a few over-worked practitioners have wished they could get their hands on a Star Trek tricorder at one time or another. Imagine a handheld device that could be waved over a patient’s body to instantly yield vital information about any conditions they are suffering from. It may sound impossible but researchers are now closer than ever to making it a reality.

(sidebar: image of Star Trek tricorder (not sure which one yet) with this description:

“On Star Trek, the medical tricorder is used by doctors to help diagnose diseases and collect bodily information about a patient.”)


There are two major research projects working towards creating handheld devices that could radically change how medicine is practiced. The first is a pen-sized microscope that can identify cancer cells in patients, right from the doctor’s offices and operating rooms. Engineers at the University of Washington have developed a handheld, miniature microscope which could enable surgeons to identify cancer at a cellular level in real-time.

In an interview with Future Timeline, Jonathan Liu, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering, points out that it’s difficult for surgeons to know if they’ve removed all of a tumour, “Being able to zoom and see at the cellular level during the surgery would really help them to accurately differentiate between tumor and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes.”

In addition to the obvious advantages during surgery, a high resolution, handheld microscope could potentially see changes at a cellular level and assess lesions and moles immediately in the dentist or dermatologist’s office, eliminating the need for out-patient procedures and lengthy wait times for biopsy results.

The second research project isn’t really a project at all — it’s a competition! In “a highly leveraged, incentivized prize competition that pushes the limits of what’s possible to change the world for the better,” The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a $10 million global competition to develop a device capable of capturing key health metrics and diagnosing diseases.

There are currently 7 teams in the final round of this global competition, with 4 of those coming from the US, and one each from Canada, India and Taiwan. In order to make it this far in the competition, each of these teams has demonstrated that their technology has a feasible, concrete means to be developed into a health assessment tool.

The devices are expected to accurately diagnose 10 required core conditions and a choice of 3 elective conditions, for a total of 13 conditions (or 12 conditions and the absence of 1) in addition to capturing five real-time health vital signs: blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, and temperature.

As expected, the guidelines for the competition are extensive and the competition is tough. It’s also important to note that one of the main motivating factors for the competition is something that many physicians may not want to hear at first — to create a device that helps consumers make their own reliable health diagnoses. Fear not, dear doctor, this isn’t about putting you out of business: this is about putting healthcare in the hands of people in developing countries with little to no access to traditional healthcare due to socio-economic circumstance or geographical challenges. It’s also about finding better ways to manage inefficient systems that lead to over-spending and unnecessary care such as here in the US. The prize purse has a total value of $10 million, with prizes being awarded for first, second and third prize, but as their website says, the real prize is empowering personal healthcare.


What conditions will the winning Tricorder diagnose?

Required Core Health Conditions (10): Anemia, Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Diabetes, Leukocytosis, Pneumonia, Otitis Media, Sleep Apnea, Urinary Tract Infection, Absence of condition.

Elective Health Conditions (Choice of 3): Allergens (airborne), Cholesterol Screen, Food-borne Illness, HIV Screen, Hypertension, Hypothyroidism/Hyperthyroidism, Melanoma, Mononucleosis, Osteoporosis, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Shingles, Strep Throat.

Team DMI link to video:


Embed code: <iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/D7OjREmBdWQ” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

What if you could interact with a completely accurate and interactive 3D visualization of your patient’s heart as easily as Princess Lea could communicate with Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars? Holograms have been a staple in science fiction for light years. From the ghostly blue holographic communications in Star Wars to the virtual realities of the “holodeck” on Star Trek, and the high-tech holographic displays in Iron Man 2, we’ve been imagining real life applications of holography for decades. Now an Israeli start-up has created the real thing. RealView Imaging Ltd. has developed technology that projects “dynamic 3D holographic images floating in the air” without the need for any type of eyewear or a conventional 2D screen.” The user can literally touch the image and interact with it as though it is the patient’s real anatomy for an experience the developers call “image intimacy.” In fact, the advancements they have made in live holography are so cutting-edge that many of the Youtube viewers who have commented on this video simply can’t believe it’s true. But it is:

Embed video:

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/AIj2xEd_z78″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIj2xEd_z78


With all of these advances in medical technology and delivery of care, it’s no surprise that our medical facilities will soon be following suit on this futuristic path. When all this new tech is available to the masses, what will the patient rooms in your practice look like? I’m guessing they’ll be something like this…


Embed code: <iframe src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/37038503″ width=”500″ height=”281″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/37038503″>NXT Patient Room 2020</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user10497684″>NXT Health</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>