Technological advancements have always served the transformation and development of modern medicine. Living in an era of exponential technological evolution, one can only imagine what the future of medicine looks like. The role of healthcare is to diagnose and treat people to improve their quality of life; new technologies allow clinicians to prevent diseases, diagnose earlier and with greater accuracy than ever, but also to treat diseases more efficiently and with fewer side effects. Thus, improving our quality of life altogether.
While the spotlight is often turned towards technologies like AI, VR, surgical robotics or telemedicine, many other lesser well-known technologies are reshaping medicine for the better. This article delves into three innovative medical technologies revolutionising the field, fostering remarkable leaps in prevention, diagnostics, and treatments.
Nanotechnology is defined as the use of materials at the nanoscale (1 - 100nm). In medicine, such materials can be exploited to interact with the human body at the molecular level, providing a level of interaction between technology and physiology that has never been seen before. The concept of nanotechnology is by no means new though. Its introduction dates back to 1959 when Richard Feynman gave his famous talk: "There's plenty of room at the bottom". Throughout these years, nanomedicine has made its way into medicine in various ways.
One of its more researched applications is targeted drug delivery. Imagine if drugs could be delivered at the exact location that are needed and at the appropriate amount. This describes a perfect delivery system that would dramatically increase efficiency and decrease side effects. Such efforts are already underway, with a good example being PEG liposomal doxorubicin, the first nanomedicine approved by the FDA for certain types of cancer. The anti-cancer drug (doxorubicin) is enclosed within liposomes and PEG antigens, which prevent unwanted interaction with other cells, thereby enhancing the anti-tumour effects while decreasing the cardiotoxicity side-effect of the drug.
Equally exciting is its use in delivering drugs to the brain. The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is restricting molecules from crossing into the brain to protect the brain from harmful substances. At the same time, though, this proves a challenge for finding treatments for neurological and psychiatric illness. Glucose-coated nanoparticles are just one of the examples of how nanomedicine can help combat this challenge, as glucose is one of the molecules that can transfer through the BBB, hence allowing the transfer of the drug.
Imaging is another area where nanotechnology has impressive results. Nanoparticle contrast agents can enhance and tailor imaging to specific needs. Nanoparticles that glow when illuminated with UV light are attached to cancer-specific antibodies. This means that the glow can be used as a guide for tumour location. This application can be used for the early detection of cancer and, hence early treatment, but also during surgery to ensure complete cancer removal and a reduced risk of recurrence.
There is still hope for science fiction enthusiasts who have imagined an army of nanorobots in their blood catering to their health. Researchers have developed ultrasound-powered robots that can move through the blood to remove bacteria and their toxins. These robots are made up of a gold body that can be moved externally by ultrasound. It is also coated by platelets that can bind to bacteria, and by red blood cells that can uptake toxins produced by the bacteria.
Digital twinning is the creation of a virtual model for a real-life physical system. This model can then be used for monitoring and testing to predict how the physical system will behave. This technology dates back to the 1970s; when an explosion of its oxygen tank severely damaged the Apollo 13 spacecraft, NASA needed to find a way to bring its astronauts back to Earth. Using one of their simulators and reprogramming it to account for the new conditions of the spacecraft after the explosion, they could calculate and test the manoeuvres that would bring their astronauts back. Digital twinning has since been implemented into many engineering disciplines. From aeroplanes to bridges, digital twins are an invaluable tool that drives faster and safer advancements.
Imagine now a model that can simulate your body. This model will be uploaded continuously with your current health data collected from the increasing sensing technology we develop and use and will work to predict the physiological changes in your body based on your body's environmental exposures. This model will then be able to predict your risk of developing a disease and help towards early diagnosis, or even better, patients and doctors could act early to prevent a disease from happening altogether. Another use would be for doctors to use your digital twin to predict which treatment would be best for you and what the outcome of such a treatment would be.
Research in this discipline has been rapidly increasing since 2010, and many efforts have been made to produce isolated models of human physiology to serve specific clinical needs. One such example is a company named Sim&Cure, which uses 3D angiography to create 3D models of patients' aneurysms and surrounding vessels. The surgeon then uses this model to study and plan the surgery tailored to the patient’s specific physiology. At the same time they can use the model to practice the surgery beforehand.
Neurotechnology, once regarded only to be found in the realms of science fiction, has now transitioned into reality. This field can be defined as the integration of nervous tissue with technological devices, offering the capability to record neuronal signals or modulate neural activity. Such technology paves the way for a novel method of interacting with the human nervous system, presenting a revolutionising potential for advancements in neurological disease diagnosis and treatment. From addressing the tremors associated with Parkinson's disease through deep brain stimulation to electroencephalograms for seizure diagnoses, neurotechnology has already solidified its place in clinical practice. Recent advancements in neurotechnology have nevertheless pushed the boundaries of what is deemed possible.
The brain and technology can be fused in two main ways: invasively or non-invasively. Invasive methods include the placement of electrodes within the brain tissue. Perhaps one of the most exciting and well-known examples is Neuralink. After animal testing, they are now recruiting participants for their PRIME clinical trial, with the aim of enabling people with quadriplegia to control a computer and, if successful neuroprosthetics. Inherent problems associated with invasive methods include immune reactions elicited towards the electrodes, which can negatively affect the brain.
Equally exciting are efforts for non-invasive neurotechnology. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a method by which electromagnetic induction can be used to stimulate an area of the brain and is an FDA-approved treatment for OCD, migraines and smoking cessation. Faraday's law states that a wire with a changing electric current running through will produce a varying magnetic field, which would be able to induce a current in another wire found within that magnetic field. Using this phenomenon, this method can use an extracranial electromagnetic coil to stimulate the brain without the need for surgical implantation. Efforts are made to improve this method to allow for localised stimulation, which can improve side effects and allow for better outcomes.
Technological advancements in medicine have always challenged what is considered possible and have been the driving force for better patient care. Today's research is driving development and innovation so rapidly and on so many fronts that one can only imagine what the future of medicine will look like. One thing is for sure though, it looks very exciting!
Author: Giannis Konstantinou, MTF Content Creator
Editor: Ramat Abdulkadir, MTF National Technology Director